Los Angeles- and Chicago-based pet photographer Seth Casteel skyrocketed to overnight success when his stunning underwater pictures of dogs diving for balls and toys went viral a few weeks back, racking up thousands of likes on Facebook and jam-packing his calendar with interviews and invitations to fly all over the world. The 31-year-old Dogster fan, who has two dogs of his own, now ponders his newfound fame.
Dogster: So you’re being deluged with calls and emails right now?
Seth: Yes. I had about 895 e-mails awaiting responses when we talked two days ago, and I’ve gotten about 1,200 more e-mails since then. I’m trying to get through them as fast as I can — sorting out which ones are from the media, which ones are from potential clients. … I’m getting all kinds of crazy requests, and everybody’s wondering why I can’t respond sooner.
Requests? For what?
Well, there are requests from people who want me to photograph their pets here in the US, and from people who want me to photograph their pets elsewhere in the world — I don’t even know how many countries. Most of the e-mails thus far have been from Europe, but I’ve also gotten a lot from Australia and Latin America, and right now it’s starting to take off in Asia.
People want to fly me out to wherever they are. For example, one client wants to fly me to Germany to photograph a golden retriever. And a cool pet company in South Africa wants to fly me out there to do a commercial marketing campaign. I would do a shoot, including photography and videography, then go on a safari — and it would all be on them.
There are requests from people who want to buy prints of my work in regular sizes. And there are requests from people who want to buy prints twelve feet across and twelve feet high. They want to hang these in giant living rooms and offices.
You were just a mild-mannered pet photographer, minding your own business. Did this overnight fame take you by surprise?
Absolutely. This was an absolute, total surprise. I never had this as a goal. I never would have guessed in a million years that this could even happen. I hadn’t been doing anything all that different with my photography before this — just trying to work hard and improve and have a great time meeting pets and their people. But then one of those pictures happened to be posted in the right place at the right time, and someone saw it and liked it and other people got curious, and it was one of those things. It’s a phenomenon.
How did you become a pet photographer in the first place?
I had another career before this, and it had nothing to do with animals. I was a design guy, working on movie posters, trailers, and advertisements for big studios including Sony and Walt Disney.
I came up with ideas for marketing The Da Vinci Code, the 007 movies, and the Spider-Man movies — creative campaigns to market these movies in 75 different territories around the world. The international element was really cool. But at one point it occurred to me that my passion was animals, not movies.
And what was that point?
I was working at Sony when some of my co-workers found four homeless kittens living on the lot. I offered to take some photographs of the kittens because I thought this might help them find homes. We went into an executive’s office — where we were definitely not supposed to be — and I photographed the kittens playing on the sofas.
Well, all those kittens found homes — and I thought: Maybe I can keep doing this. That was four and a half years ago. I started volunteering at the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter, taking pictures of the dogs and cats there in order to help them find homes.
The marketing of homeless pets actually plays an important role in saving them.
One day at the shelter, I met someone who said, “Can I hire you to photograph my dog?” I thought: You mean, for pay? Well … okay. One of the pictures from that shoot ended up on a magazine and started getting attention.
I’ve always loved animals. I grew up with a miniature dachshund named Duchess who lived to be seventeen. I’ve always loved animals, but it didn’t occur to me until that moment that I could make a career out of this. It hasn’t always been easy. You have to hustle. And the economy hasn’t helped.
How did you get the idea to take pictures of dogs underwater?
It seems to me that water gives dogs the opportunity to explore their wild instincts. That’s why it’s so exciting for them and so much fun for them to be under the water, even if they’ve never been near the water before. This shines through in the photographs. You can see in the pictures that these very expressive moments are happening to the dogs underwater: moments which can be very silly or very focused or even very terrifying. I think that’s what the deal is with the water.
Many of these dogs I photographed underwater had never been underwater before. I was presenting them with an opportunity to embrace their instincts. Their owners were suprised when I asked, and I think the pets were surprised when they got into the water — but surprised in a really good way.
And now you are the one being photographed, right?
Yes. A couple days ago I was picked up and taken to CNN headquarters in Hollywood and was on CNN’s World Report. They did my hair and makeup. Anna Coren interviewed me from Hong Kong. It was wild. This has all been a little intimidating, but it has also been a really positive experience.
And just this morning I found out that the “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan, posted some really nice comments about me on his website. We’ve met before — and now on his website he describes me as his friend and calls me “amazing.” It’s really flattering. How cool is that?
Pretty cool. But what if your sudden success is actually some kind of cosmic reward? As in: This talented young guy helped some poor homeless kitties find homes — so let’s give him a break!
I don’t know about that, but I have continued my volunteer work. I founded a nonprofit called Second Chance: Saving Pets Through Photography. It helps people learn how to take pictures of shelter pets and how to get these pictures seen so that the pets can find homes. A picture can save a life.
[At this point, Casteel briefly interrupted our interview in order to ask his Labradoodle, Nala — whom he adopted from a shelter — to stop barking.]
I teach as many workshops as I can — all free and open to the public — at animal shelters. I don’t take a salary for this. I don’t take a dime. All the money goes directly toward workshops and toward buying equipment that can be used to photograph shelter animals. I obviously want to help animals here in the US and Canada, but I want to bring awareness about this issue to other countries as well. You can’t expect a culture to change its views on animals in a matter of, say, a year. But little by little, you can try.
Meanwhile, you’re running a business as well. Has overnight fame doubled your prices?
No. I am increasing my prices, but by just a shade. I’m also offering new packages. A one-hour shoot used to start at $375. Now it will start at $450. I’m also now offering an underwater shoot for around $1,000.
The other new package — I just came up with this title — will be called the Ultimate Pet Photography Experience. It will be available to anybody around the world. For something in the ballpark of $7,000 plus travel expenses, I will fly to wherever you are, spend two full days with you and your pets, and document their personalities through photography. I think it’s going to be fantastic. Sure, you can do a shoot in one hour. But with two full days, I would get a chance to really know the pets, to live their lives in their own time. It’s very expensive, but it’s also a lot of work.
Which of the underwater dog pictures is your favorite?
My favorite is a picture of Buster, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel — because he’s the one who got it all started.
I was hired to photograph him, and we started the shoot on land. But when he kept jumping into the pool — swimming, diving — I wondered: What does he look like under there? It was the first underwater work I’ve ever done in my life, and I did it with a little point-and-shoot camera. We played around with a little tennis ball — and that was it. I have to give credit where credit is due.
I’m sure Duchess would be proud of you. What’s next?
Only time will tell. This kind of attention I never knew before. It’s just bizarre. Whatever happens, I’m really trying to leverage the importance of helping animals and bringing awareness about animals anywhere, to anyone, however I can.
Photo credits: Seth Casteel, Little Friends Photography