Giving a voice to the voiceless is a powerful thing to do. Without advocates, those unable to speak up or speak out, for themselves, all too easily become victims of others with more power, The voiceless can be misunderstood, evoke negative feelings and be subject to negative behaviours.

Sophie Gamand - Photo by Mindy Tucker

New York based Sophie Gamand uses her award-winning photographic talents to give voice to a breed of dog that has been demonised in modern society. Her work explores the complex relationship between humans and dogs – particularly that relating to pit bulls, the population of dogs killed most often in American shelters.

800,000 to 1 million pit bulls are euthanised every year in U.S. rescue shelters. That’s three dogs every two minutes.

I first became aware of Sophie via social media, at a time when she was struggling to feel the positive impact of her work travelling throughout the U.S. – and beyond – to photograph shelter dogs for free in order to help them get adopted and change perceptions of the breed.

Sophie is a fantastic communicator and her photographs, and community of 300,000 followers, have brought attention and salvation to hundreds (possibly thousands) of dogs, who are at threat of death just because they are – or appear to be – a pit bull.

To counter the stereotypical image of such dogs, Sophie’s photographs portray shelter pit bulls wearing flower crowns that she has made. There is something about each original crown that draws out the personality of the dog wearing it. Dogs that have been abandoned, overlooked, and often cruelly mistreated in their lives. Dogs who retain love in their hearts for humans and are capable of being rehomed safely to live happy lives. As Sophie clarifies:

Using data collected from animal shelters and veterinarians, some sources estimate that about twenty percent of the total owned dog population in the U.S. are pit bull-type dogs (that’s about 18 million pit bulls), and they are the third most popular type adopted from shelters and the fifth most popular dog type registered by veterinarians. It seems the negative perception of pit bulls is outdated and contradicts the reality for millions of dog owners and for the animal welfare community at large.

Last year I responded to Sophie’s call for supporters of a Kickstarter project to publish a book, Pit Bull Flower Power, telling the stories of individual pit bull dogs, the dedicated people working in shelters and those who open their homes – and hearts – to foster and adopt.

I knew the book would be beautiful and moving. I can tell how much care that Sophie and everyone involved in its production have put into every page.

Not only does each photograph capture something special and unique about its subject, but the accompanying text is beautifully crafted as a series of short stories. These are heart-warming and heart-wrenching in equal measure.

I’ve taken my time to write this post, just as I did in reading the book; slowly turning each page, looking into the eyes of dog after dog wearing their fabulous flower crowns.

Their faces appear to reflect pride, amusement, sadness, hope, patience, gratitude, resignation, dignity, stoicism, anticipation, nobility, confusion, cheekiness… – a variety of emotions, expressions and personalities.

Some have eyes misty with old age. Others have the brightness of young pups. Some are caught with hilarious expressions. Some carry battle scars – survivors of human brutalities. Not one appears fearful, angry, aggressive or in despair.

Each dog – young or old – looks directly at the reader. Their connection with Sophie comes through her lens and off the page. They clearly trust her. She is a wonderful advocate, given each dog its voice. A picture speaks a thousand words.

It is no wonder that people have seen one of the photographs online and driven hundreds of miles to offer a new home to so many. It is so sad that others have not been so fortunate.

Each photograph carries the name of the dog, the shelter and the date they were photographed by Sophie. I held my breath to read the other word in the caption that told of the dog’s fate. Adopted. Adopted. Adopted. Breathe…

So many tragic life stories with positive outcomes, albeit too often with many years, and false hopes, before the happy ending. Some are captioned: Adopted, deceased. At least they got to feel love, even if too late and for too short a time.

There are those Still waiting – making me thankful they are in rescues that are committed to ‘no kill’. But shelters are no substitute for good homes, and indeed, many dogs deteriorate or experience problems simply because they are kept in rescue for too long. They become less likely to be chosen. To be given a chance.

Then a caption: Annabelle. 2016, Euthanised. Page 58. Sophie tells of visiting a shelter in Puerto Rico. She witnessed conditions where the staff were overwhelmed – but hopeful that awareness through social media would generate funds to make improvements for the animals.

Two photographs. A four month old puppy, Cecilia – and Annabelle, a one year old, black pit bull. Following fund-raising to improve the shelter’s facilities, Sophie returned two months later. Cecilia was still waiting – but needing a home quickly. With dogs arriving daily, the euthanasia rate was 90 per cent. Thanks to further social media sharing, Cecilia was saved.

AnabelleBut Anabelle who had been waiting a year – with no luck – had already been killed. There she was, looking out of the page. An amazing flower crown fitting her perfectly. Soulful copper eyes. Too late to find a loving home.

If only one of those people who had seen her photograph via social media had realised how little time she had. If only…

FlowerPage 108. #1199475. 2017, Euthanised. Just seven lines of text. Sophie had called the shelter in California a week after photographing the smiling nameless dog in a glorious white and purple flower crown. She asked about his status to post his image online. Too late. He’d been euthanised. I read that she named him Flower. I cried. I’m crying now.

It takes courage, compassion and dedication to work in rescue. To open yourself as Sophie does. To look into the eyes of dogs facing death, even if you and they don’t know it. Even harder when you have to make those decisions. Working in shelters can be emotionally brutal as you can read on Sophie’s blog.

Just because they’ve been surrendered. Just because someone doesn’t notice them, pick them, love them. Just because they have no voice of their own. Just because others label all pit bulls (or pit bull types) as bad. Just because the world isn’t fair.

ConnorPage 180. Connor. 2016, Euthanised. Life wasn’t fair to Connor. Sophie writes that his story “is beautiful and tragic”. Born in a shelter and returned following a failed adoption, Connor was diagnosed with a sensory processing disorder and had special needs. Medication seemed to be of help, but a set of unforeseeable circumstances caused a traumatic situation that meant euthanasia was the kindest outcome.

Pit Bull Flower Power is a beautiful book that I will treasure forever. It is filled with stories of hope because people like me – and I hope, like you – believe that rescue dogs have a place in our homes and hearts. People gain far more than they give in saving a dog’s life.

You can invest in Sophie’s book or buy her other products via her online store – this helps to fund her pro-bono work and give hope to rescue shelters who need her advocacy.

As a full-time artist, Sophie proves the importance of good photography and the power of public relations to give abandoned animals, and those seeking to find homes for them, a louder voice.

Sophie is also a committed activist – you can follow and support her work by signing up for her newsletter, or connecting through Facebook @SophieGamand, Twitter @SophieGamand, and/or Instagram, @SophieGamand.

Pit Bull Flower Power exhibit and book launch, October 2018, Sophie Gamand

Pit Bull Flower Power exhibition @ The Glass House in New York