This month’s essential Kickstarter project is a book called Animal Soul. The artsy coffee table tome is the brainchild of photographer Robert Bahou, whose simple yet striking images of dogs and cats set against nothing more than a plain black backdrop have already begun to captivate readers around the world.
With the Kickstarter campaign in full flow, I spoke to Robert about the inspiration behind the book, his goals for changing the way people view dogs, and the pesky issue of mischievous pups marking their territory on his equipment.
Dogster: What attracted you to photographing animals in the first place?
Robert Bahou: I was always surrounded by animals in my house growing up. We’d always have animals coming in from the outside, and we’d take them in before rehoming them. But photographing them specifically came from this profound fascination that I’ve always had with animals. When we look at them, we don’t pay too much attention to who they are — well, we might with our own animals, but it’s difficult to transmit that message.
I felt that with a relatively simply guiding methodology for this project — the idea of photographing them with nothing else so they’re just themselves — I could capture something that we often don’t look at.
Also, I love animals, and I’d much rather work with cats and dogs than people.
Was there one particular animal who inspired the book?
I suppose the entire project was inspired by one of the first photographs I made for this of Scuba, this dissatisfied tabby cat. He belongs to a good friend of mine, and I’ve known the cat for a long time, so I thought, “Let’s give it a shot.” He’s a very expressive animal, and I thought I could make some good photos. It took me about 25 minutes to set it all up and get everything in position, and the first photo I snapped was that one.
Once I looked at that, it captivated me so much I thought I could find something similar in other animals. The ball just kept rolling, and eventually I had enough photos for a book.
Do you have a different method for photographing dogs as opposed to cats?
You need to approach photographing dogs completely differently than cats. Dogs are trained to sit, so that part helps. You can more or less tell a dog what to do if they’re well-trained, but a cat has to do what they choose themselves and won’t have people make their choices for them. With dogs, for the book, I just put two cones down, and I have the owners guide them there and they’ll often sit there patiently.
Lots of dogs also pant, which can be quite a road bump for me, because it’s something we associate with dogs specifically; if I get rid of the panting, suddenly we’re looking at the animal in a totally different way.
Who’s the dog on the cover of the book?
He lives with two other female dogs, but he’s quite a shy boy. He kept looking away and closing his eyes when I met him. I had a great experience sitting with him and his puppies for about an hour, just playing. Even after that, he was still a little bit nervous around me.
Why did you chose him for the cover?
It happened by accident, to be honest. I was searching for a different photo but I miswrote the file number and this one just popped up. It was a photo I’d completely overlooked, and I just thought it was exactly what I was looking for in a cover: It’s everyone and it’s no one at the same time; his eyes are closed and the book is closed. The idea right now is I’ll have a dust jacket on the book, so if you open the dust jacket there will be another photo that’s almost the same but with his eyes open.
Did you have a checklist of breeds you wanted to include in the book?
Not really. In the beginning, it wasn’t necessarily about the breed. I wanted originally to do it about shelter animals, but I found that with the breeds you can make it more interesting to look at and many different people will be reached that way. I’ve had many people come up to me and say, “That Westie reminds me so much of my own West Highland Terrier.” That really touches me when that happens.
Did many of the dogs in the book act up during their photoshoots?
I have had a few issues! I had one case where there were two brothers living together, and I asked if that would be a problem, and I was told no. But once we started bringing treats into the mix, one got jealous, and they had a go at each other. That was quite a mess! In the end, dogs are animals and they do have these instincts.
Did any of the dogs inadvertently break any of your equipment?
I have had equipment knocked over and almost broken, but nothing actually broken yet. I have a number of scratches on my phones and my lights and my cameras, just because dogs will walk on them. Oh, and I had a number of male dogs marking their territory on my bags …
Why did you decide to shoot all the portraits against a black backdrop?
Black, for me, really means empty. With white I’m too conscious of it, and it’s something many other people do. White would also quickly give it a commercial look, but black is empty and sober. A big challenge when photographing animals is to take a black animal and photograph him against a black background. That’s how it started, with a black cat against a black background, and I thought I might as well be consistent.
Why did you decide to include both cats and dogs in the book? There’s the stereotype that they can sometimes be enemies.
Yeah, they could be seen as enemies, and I do understand that, but they also go hand in hand, and they’re the two animals we’re most familiar with. For every dog lover, there’s also a cat lover. I’m not sure if there’s even a majority for either side. I’ve had a lot of people suggest separating the book into cats and dogs, but I really enjoy seeing them next to each other.
Scoot over to Robert’s Kickstarter page for more information on Animal Soul.
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