Create: Books I Love, LANDFILL DOGS

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I love this series because I love promoting the hard work of other photographers especially when they come to the table with comprehensive plans but without all the answers.

Shannon Johnstone’s Landfill Dogs happens to be one of my favorite books and also happens to be a Blurb project. What she did with Blurb goes far beyond what most do, or even realize they can do, but that is not the point. Regardless of what your preferred publishing method, you can learn a lot from this project. (Check the other projects on her site.)

Story, timeline, audience, goal, marketing, materials, print run, reprint, fundraising, etc. Launching a book can be as easy as having a cup of coffee or it can be like climbing Everest. Each project is different. Understanding your goal is key. I can’t really do this project justice with a short film like this but I wanted to at least bring this story to your attention.

What I can do is show you the written interview I did with Shannon. I couldn’t read this entire thing during the film but wanted to let you see it here. Many thanks to Shannon for taking the time to do this.

I also mentioned Kent Hall in this story. You can find Kent here.

Shannon Johnstone Interview

  1. So, first off, tell us a little about yourself. Photographer, educator and bookmaker? How did this happen?

I am an artist and photography professor at a small all-women’s college in Raleigh, NC, called Meredith College. I grew up in Milwaukee, WI, and went to art school in Chicago (SAIC), and grad school in Rochester, NY (RIT). After too many frostbitten toes, I promised myself I would move somewhere more mild.

I became interested in photography when I got my first camera from a happy meal around 13. (I know. I should not still have been eating happy meals at that age.) I carried that camera around with me everywhere I went and photographed everything—friends, family, bus rides downtown, street corners. I was afraid I was going to forget who I was, and saw this little camera as a way to preserve my history. I didn’t want to be forgotten. Of course I didn’t think of it in those words at the time, but that was what I was doing.

  1. Being a photographer who works in narrative form, how does the book play in the overall structure of a project? Is a book the goal from the beginning? With all your projects?

I love structure. I crave structure. Orson Welles has a great quote about this. He says “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” This means that creativity is born when you have boundaries and rules to break. The book format provides this structure naturally. With Landfill Dogs, I didn’t think of it as a book. I initially imagined it as a series of about 20 large scale photographs. However, the more I started learning about county animal shelters; pit bulls being the last of the dogs to find homes; and the good work that was being done to improve their lives, I realized a book format would tell the story much better.

To be honest, I only  decided to make a book after ABC World News with Diane Sawyer (2013) featured the Landfill Dogs project. The project grew exponentially after that. Overnight our facebook page grew from a few hundred followers to over 30K. That is not hyperbole. That week, along with an instant audience, I also got an offer with a traditional book publisher to make a book about Landfill Dogs. I would really like to say a few things about that experience, but I have to explain the concept of Landfill Dogs first. (Sorry in advance for the LONG answer).

The  goal of Landfill Dogs is to shed light on the most overlooked dogs in the shelter, the ones who are most at risk for euthanasia. This happens to be big, jumpy pitbulls mixes who go weeks or months just waiting in their cages with no interest from rescue or individual families. Sometimes these dogs would literally go crazy from boredom. Other times they would sink into a depression, or start to lose their fur, or become susceptible to the many diseases floating in the air at the animal shelter. Many are anxious, scared, and alone. My heart goes out to these dogs who have no choice but to just sit and wait, not knowing what they are waiting for. I wanted to do something to help them, and get the public involved without making them feel guilty or sorry for the dogs.

I started Landfill Dogs in 2012 by asking my county shelter if each week I could take the dog who had been there the longest to Landfill Park. Landfill Park is a former landfill that has been converted into a public park. It was active for 14 years, and it is now the second highest point in the county. You can see for miles from the top and it is beautiful. But the backdrop of Landfill Park is used for two other reasons. First,the dogs will end up in a landfill if they do not find a home. They will be euthanized and their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash. Below the surface at Landfill Park there are more than 25,000 dogs buried. I think of this park as a burial ground. These photographs offer the last opportunity for these dogs to find homes. The second reason for the landfill location is because the county animal shelter falls under the same management as the landfill. This government structure reflects a societal value; homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. However, this landscape offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty. I hope the viewer also sees the beauty in these homeless, unloved creatures.

This is an integral part of the Landfill Dogs story, and it was very important for me to tell the entire story of these dogs—where they came from, what happens while they wait, what happens if they don’t find a home, and what happens if they do. Furthermore, I wanted to tell the story of what happens to all the dogs, honoring the ones who didn’t make it out of the shelter, as well as the happy stories of the lucky dogs who did. After several intense discussions with the publisher, it was obvious we were not interested in the same things. They were interested in telling a story that focused on the adoptions and the happily-ever afters. They wanted me to leave out the euthanasia info and drop the background information on county shelters and landfill site. They wanted to minimize that connection, which for me is the heart and sole of why I wanted to do this project. Their vision was not the book I wanted to make, and so I returned their cash advance, ended the contract, and decided to self-publish.  Self-publishing seemed to be a natural fit for Landfill Dogs. These dogs need direct access to people who love and see them. They don’t need a mediator or gatekeeper. I see that as a metaphor for self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. I chose Blurb because I had used Blurb in the past to print my photo journals, and was always impressed with the print quality and binding.

Furthermore, one of my goals with Landfill Dogs was to make sure that all the proceeds went back to the shelter, to help these dogs, and others in the same position. This didn’t come from a do-good mentality—on the contrary; the last thing I want to do was profit from someone else’s suffering. This is another area the traditional publisher and I did not see eye to eye about, and they were unwilling to donate any proceeds. With Blurb, I got to make a book exactly the way I wanted, tell the story I wanted to tell, and got complete control over where the profits went. So far the project has donated almost $15,000 since 2012. AND thanks to Kent, Blurb raised an additional $2500 for the shelter, IN ONE DAY! (more on that below)

  1. Dogs…how did this love affair begin?

Dogs are creatures I adore. I love their joyful spirit, their earnest soulful expressions, their capacity for acceptance and forgiveness, and their companionship. I often wonder what it would be like to express myself with a tail, or long ears. I adopted my first dog, Lula Belle, after I moved to North Carolina. I had told myself that when I graduated school I would “get” a dog.  The only reason why I adopted is because I wanted an adult dog because I didn’t have time for a puppy. If I could have bought an adult dog, I would have. However, my neighbor saw that I adopted and thought I was knowledgeable and passionate about animal overpopulation and she talked me into volunteering with her at Wake County Animal Center each week. At first, I would spend my time cleaning cages, or walking dogs, or doing whatever was needed. But very quickly we learned that I could be better used by taking pictures of the animals for the website. I would photograph cats in costumes and aim for cute head tilts with the dogs. While these photos were valuable to the shelter, I was really interested in what I couldn’t see, and what went on behind the closed doors. Each week brought a new set of animals, and the shelter was always full. These dogs were no different than my Lula dog. The only difference is that no one loved them enough to claim them as their own. That broke my heart. I thought “well if people could just see the euthanasias they would want to do better.” So, I created a documentary project about that called “Breeding Ignorance”. I had hoped people would see the images and be motivated to spay and neuter, and to stop the cycle of animal overpopulation. But instead, people blamed the animal shelter and accused the shelter workers of cruelty. This saddened and frustrated me. I spent a long time thinking how I could approach this same topic differently. How do you visualize tragedy, but do it in a way that empowers people and motivates them to act positively? Landfill Dogs is my answer to that question.

  1. How did Landfill Dogs go from concept to project? And how long was the process from start to finish?

Landfill Dogs went on for about six years, 2012–2018. It wasn’t supposed to last more than one year, 18-months at the longest. But after the second year, so many dogs were still benefiting from it that I didn’t want to stop. It went on until about mid 2018 with almost 200 dogs participating.

  1. When I think about intelligent, subject driven photography projects, I often think of Landfill Dogs not only because the work and project are top notch but also because you had a plan for publishing as well. In the age of social media, which may or may not represent an actual, in-the-flesh human audience you did seem to have an actual audience based through the education community? Is this accurate?

Yes and no. I think the main followers of Landfill Dogs are animal advocates rather than photography professionals, or from fellow art educators. Interestingly enough, Landfill Dogs has received the most academic attention in the field of Human-Animal Studies, (not art or photography). I have presented Landfill Dogs at national and international HAS conferences,  but have yet to be accepted to speak at the national SPE conference, even as a panel speaker. Since I didn’t know what HAS was, I will explain it, but I apologize if I am telling you something you already know. Human-Animal Studies is a newer academic field committed to analyzing the question, “do nonhuman animals deserve our moral consideration?” and looking at the questions though blending humanities and science. I think Landfill Dogs resonates with these academics because its goal is to see these dogs as sentient beings, not as symbols or metaphors. I think academic photography and art programs are behind the curve on this line of thinking and still view animals in art as a reflection of the human experience.

  1. Did you gauge your audience before doing your print run?

See my super long answer to #3. 🙂

  1. Thanks to Kent Hall, my colleague at Blurb, there was also a fundraiser involved. Can you tell us more and does publishing often require getting creative when it comes to funding? (Kent is doing an audio file for me as well!)

Kent is one of the reasons why I love Blurb. He is kind, committed, empathic, and genuine. He was truly interested in making sure my project was everything I wanted it to be. I remember he wrote me one morning and said he was just thinking about the dogs in my book because he saw a pitbull on his train into work that morning. That really touched me.

The fundraiser was entirely his idea. I love that it asked the community to share their rescue dog stories, and with it, Blurb offered a $10 donation for each story. 250 people shared their stories! This is such a great idea, rooted in positivity and spreading the message of adopting. I think the shelter workers were in tears overwhelmed by this generosity. I was!

  1. There are two versions of Landfill Dogs. Why? What purpose did each serve and how did you settle on the customizations with the limited edition?

The limited-edition version was run because the printer wanted to test the cover and paper stock and asked if I would be willing to let them do a small run with the work as an example. In exchange, they gave me a limited number of these books and let me choose the colors and style for the cover.

  1. If I remember correctly, your first print run sold out. Was that a surprise and did you end up doing a second?

   YES! I was totally surprised that the first run sold out and sold out as quickly as it did (about 6 months). The first one came out in November of 2015. We decided to do a second print run a few months after the first sold out, and then it took about another 6 months or so before we had the second printing in hand, which was in mid 2017. We still have a few copies, but we are down to the last few boxes.

  1. Any lessons you learned from Landfill Dogs that have helped out in later projects?

I learned that there are so many things I do not know. I guess I knew that already but used to be intimidated by that. But this project taught me to just keep asking questions and stay committed to the ideas that motivate me. There will always be roadblocks and struggles. Just keep working.

  1. What would you like people to know or learn from Landfill Dogs?

I would love for people to adopt from their local animal shelter. There is no need to buy a dog. If you cannot find the dog you are looking for at your county animal shelter, find a local rescue who works with your county animal shelter!

My dream would be if this project inspired someone to walk into the local animal shelter and say “Show me the creature who has been here the longest and has the most need”, and then adopted him/her.

  1. Where can people follow what you are doing now? 
  • (collaborative project with writer Teri Saylor)