I froze the first time my little sister Andi suggested to me I would be good at pet photography. It was the mid-'90s. I was 16 and bald by choice, with a smattering of bad piercings. Vividly in my mind, a sun-bleached image of a spaniel in a wicker basket among impossibly green grass popped up, enhanced by some terrible circular filter. Not a chance.
Sure, the first series I ever shot was of animals — road kill, to be specific. I wanted my photography to be dark and confrontational. I shot bands, portraits in graveyards, nudes of friends... somewhere I have a print of a dead possum with a cigarette in its mouth. I fancied myself super deep and misunderstood, and the last thing I wanted was to set my sights on Hallmark cards of dogs and cats.
Now that I'm exactly twice the age I was when Andi made her untimely suggestion, ask me if I want my photos mass distributed as a line of puppy photos, and you will get a resounding, "Hell yeah!" She knew something early on that I failed to grasp: thatI was too impulsive to ever work with anything I didn't already love, and what I love is animals.
Ever since I was a child, my mother would tell me about how our bulldog Daisy saved my family's life before I was born and that it was because of her, my constant playmate until I was five, that I was even born. Maybe that was what conditioned me to think that these animals were just as much my siblings as my three sisters were. We all played dress up together, played soccer together, and slept together. For a while I took the term "lick your plate clean" quite literally and would allow Daisy and our other dog, Ashes, to lick the plates after I ate; I'd then put them back into the cupboard. My mother was not amused when she finally caught me doing it.
To my three sisters and me, our dogs were more than something for amusement. They were our comfort in hard times, and there was an abundance of hard times. They were our confidants, sometimes our babysitters, and our under-the-cover heaters in the winter. When things were bad or scary at home, they would run to us and lean in to tell us it would be okay. They gave us community, they socialized us, and my sisters and I learned a lot about what it means to be a family from them.
I work with animals because they still give me peace. When I was a zoo tech, I used to baby talk to the polar bears as I cleaned up the horrors that came out of the rear ends of those otherwise pristinely white creatures. Now that I photograph animals in the studio, I don't know if I could ever not work with them in some capacity and gain the same sense of fulfillment I have as when I come home covered in hair, drool, and god knows what else.
I began working with animals when I was eight. I volunteered at Teatown Lake Reservation, a nature preserve down the road from my house. It was not glamorous work — mostly prepping diets for the reptiles and birds of prey, and cleaning. I hated cleaning. I still have no business in a kitchen, whether baking a cake or defrosting a rat. Somehow, though, when I was caring for the animals, I gave more attention to make sure that they had what they needed. I was an awkward, hyperactive, and abrasive kid, and the reward I got from feeling proud of the work I did at Teatown over the course of eight years, as well as from earning a degree of trust from the wildlife, was invaluable in building my self-confidence.
I looked for that rewarding feeling throughout my life, whether taking care of my friends' pets for them when they were out of town or helping them understand training and socialization, and then finally when I began to work with the Oregon Zoo.
I moved to Portland when I was 25. I had (astonishingly to myself) graduated from college. I wanted to avoid living at a bar to satisfy my social life like I had for the five or so previous years, so I looked into volunteer opportunities and spied an extensive program at the Oregon Zoo.
I decided at that moment that I was going to work toward being a zookeeper. I diligently went through all the volunteer training and immediately signed up for the program with the most animal interaction, Wild Life Live! Their volunteers could actually hold the birds of prey and help with their training and with school education programs. I promptly ordered a custom leather gauntlet, because I knew it would make me a better handler, plus they are really bad-ass looking.
Since at the time I was freelancing as a photographer and retoucher, I had a flexible schedule, so I volunteered relentlessly. I was at the zoo a few times a week and would just work nights. When I had deadlines I would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to finish edits for my New York clients and then head off to the zoo. I was obsessed. Since I had just graduated from college, I was eligible to be a full-time zookeeper intern for six months and decided to commit to it full bore. I spent three months with primates and three months with marine life, getting to know them, creating enrichment, training them, and cleaning up after their antics.
After my internship I was hired on at the zoo with the Wild Life Live! program I had volunteered for. I loved training animals and educating kids about wildlife conservation, so it seemed like the best fit. I loved my job. On the side I volunteered with the zoo photographer. I had become friends with so many of my coworkers and they trusted me, granting me incredible access to photograph stories about their charges, images of them in surgeries, during trainings, in their holding areas away from the public eye. It is an earned trust that I continue to enjoy to this day.
At that point I had no plans to shift my focus back to photography. I had no intention of seeing my photos smattered across the Internet; I didn't care about that kind of recognition. I loved animal care, and the photography was nice on the side. Some of my zoo photos went viral, one of an otter someone dubbed "disappointed," another of a polar bear licking cake icing off of the window of its enclosure. Then I got in a stupid car accident, and it changed everything.
My accident was not life threatening, but my car was totaled, and I bulged a disc and had whiplash. I was having trouble sitting down, and my doctor told me I had to stop doing physical labor at work until I was better — the thing was that animal care is 90 percent physical labor, so I had to take leave of my job and get better.
During that interim, which I figured would be six months to a year at most, I was pressured by the zoo photographer to try my hand at making a living as an animal photographer. I decided to try and make money off commissions until I got better and used my existing small business to secure a loan for some studio equipment. It was a gamble, and I realized quickly I had little interest in just working on commissions.
Instead I became vehemently curious about the stories of the animals around me. I was inspired by a dog I saw at the beach in a wheelchair and began scouring the city to find disabled pets for my photo series "Invincible," which has continued for four years. I started volunteering with animal rescues to help get good photos of their animals and give them a better chance at adoption. I approached strangers on the street with unique looking dogs just to photograph them, making the whole portrait business not so lucrative. I couldn't help myself. I loved it.
Shake was born out of these personal motivations. It was a vision I needed to see through. It was not a mastermind idea to promote myself or to get published. It certainly didn't come with the hope of living off of the popularity of the series for the last two years in one way or another. It was just a fun idea that I posted online for the hell of it.
Now here I am, writing an essay in anticipation of my book coming out, and in the meantime my agent is readying to approach greeting card companies... and I couldn't be happier. While I still have to pinch myself at all the success I've managed to achieve, my sister Andi has informed me that she is not at all surprised.
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Carli Davidson is the author of Shake Puppies and Shake. She is an internationally recognized, award-winning photographer and animal trainer. Her photographs have been featured in publications such as Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and Slate. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Tim, pets Norbert and Yushi, and a rotating cast of foster animals.
Books mentioned in this post
Carli Davidson is the author of Shake