Q&A with Providence Animal Photographer Traer Scott
The best-selling author and photographer shares the stories of local rescue dogs in her latest book, 'Forever Home.'
Traer Scott knows the secret to a good photography session is almost always cheese.
Her subjects love it, and when you’re photographing a fifty-plus-pound pup who doesn’t want to sit still, it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve.
Not that she needs it. Scott, a resident of Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood, has been photographing the area’s dogs, birds and other animals for the past eighteen years. After her first book, Shelter Dogs, became an unexpected hit, she embarked on a career of animal photography that’s brought her from the streets of Puerto Rico to the wild shores of Assateague Island. But her first love was always shelter dogs, and she’s returned again and again to those furry companions who tug at our heart strings with their incredible stories of lost homes and new families just waiting to be found.
In her latest book, Forever Home: The Inspiring Tales of Rescue Dogs, Scott shares the stories of local pups as well as dogs across the country who finally found their forever homes after long journeys through the shelter system. Their stories are punctuated with her eye-opening portrait photography and observations about what we, as dog lovers, can do to help our four-legged friends. Inspired? The book includes a list of local rescue organizations and ways to lend a helping hand.
Scott spoke with Rhode Island Monthly recently about the dogs featured in the book and her own journey to photographing these priceless pups.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity
How did you get the inspiration to do animal photography?
I’ve been a professional photographer my entire adult life. It’s my calling, it’s my passion, but I started out doing very different stuff. Very kind of grainy, black-and-white, moody arts stuff. It just really never occurred to me to sort of merge my animal activism with photography. I think we had been told in art school and just in general in the community at that time that if you took pictures of animals, it wasn’t serious work. It wasn’t art, and it wasn’t interesting. It was just sentimental and cute. So that really hadn’t occurred to me to go in that direction until I started volunteering at Providence Animal Control in 2004.
I had started taking photos of all of the dogs just for record because I was a photographer, and they wanted every dog that came in to be documented. This was long before adoptable animals were up on Facebook or Instagram, but there was Petfinder, and shelters were just starting to use that to get visibility for their animals, which is crazy to think about because so many animals never even got seen because the platforms didn’t exist at that time. I just started taking pictures of all the dogs, of hundreds of dogs that were coming through there.
One night I was sitting at my computer late at night and I was going through all the files, and I realized how many dogs hadn’t made it out of the shelter. Adoption rates weren’t as high then, euthanasia rates were much higher. And again, a lot of that comes down to visibility, it comes down to a lot of things. I wanted to make a body of work to intentionally memorialize these dogs and hopefully get the word out what was really happening — how many homeless animals there were that desperately needed homes — to encourage people to adopt, to encourage people to volunteer. That body of work became Shelter Dogs.
What was the reaction to that first book?
The reaction was a little crazy. It got published by Merrell Publishers, which at the time it was supposed to be this small, arty book. I think they were expecting a 5,000 print run or even less, 3,000 maybe. I don’t think things really went viral back then in the way they do now, but it was the equivalent of that. Within one week of the book coming out, I was interviewed in Life magazine, I was on the “CBS Mornings” show, just this crazy attention and publicity for the book — which was wonderful, but it was really strange and disorienting because I had been this young, struggling photographer with no success and no name and suddenly there was all this national attention. The book went on to do extremely well and became a bestseller nationally. Which a bestseller for photography books is definitely a different number than the bestseller for a novel, the numbers are much lower. But it ended up selling in the end something like 60,000 or 70,000 copies. The publisher was donating fifty cents for each book sold to the ASPCA, and so we raised like $35,000 for the ASPCA.
And then you just continued with the animal theme after that?
I did. It’s really what I’m passionate about, and after the success of Shelter Dogs, I was sort of given a little bit of free rein to do what I wanted to do. The next book was about street dogs in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and I spent six months traveling with animal rescuers throughout those countries. That was a documentary-oriented book but also had some portraiture. One book just led to another, and here I am. It’s strange how that happens, but it does. I’ve been really fortunate to have so many wonderful publishers to work with, and I’ve been able to build an audience that seems to like what I do.
How did you get this latest idea to do rescue dogs?
Forever Home is really the third book in this trilogy of sorts that takes the same concept of a dog and a portrait, a rescue dog, but goes way deeper into their story, tells their whole story from start to finish. Shelter Dogs and Finding Home were both really regional, they were pretty much exclusively shot in and around Rhode Island. With Forever Home, I wanted to give a bigger picture of nationally what the biggest issues with animal welfare are in regard to dogs, which are puppy mills and dog fighting and the need for foster home transport. Here in New England, a lot of our shelters are basically empty, which is wonderful. But all these people who want to adopt have no dogs to adopt, so most shelters participate in transport where it brings dogs up from the south and other parts of the country where they’re absolutely overrun. If you stop anyone walking around Providence usually with a mutt and ask where they came from, they say ‘Oh he’s a transport from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas,’ wherever.
So Forever Home really focuses on all of those issues that are really important right now, that we’re tackling as a country to get even further in our hopes of reducing the number of homeless animals, of changing laws that are really enabling puppy mills to thrive. There was a bit more travel involved with this because locally, we don’t have puppy mills, we don’t have really much dog fighting locally either. These are things that are somewhat regional. There are puppy mills all over, but there’s a really big concentration of them in Pennsylvania, which is where is I shot them. And a lot of the dog fighting is in the South. Certainly not all, but a lot. And actually, I was in parts of upstate New York for some of the dog fighting issues as well. It happens everywhere, but locally we don’t seem to have as much of that.
Do you have a favorite story in the book? A particular dog that you really connected with?
I felt like in each case, their stories were unique but also representing tens of thousands of other situations and animals in this country that are dealing with the same thing. One of my favorite local dogs is Harvey Dent. He’s got the best name ever and just a wonderful, wonderful mom who does so much locally in our community with shelter dogs and has started an organization called Shelter to Sofa. Harvey Dent was brought as a puppy into Providence Animal Rescue League, and he had been born with a cleft palate, which is a very difficult deformity to deal with. But he was from a backyard breeder, someone who really had no business breeding dogs and was only doing it for profit. That’s something I discuss a lot in Forever Home, because it’s really one of the biggest factors that leads to homeless animals, unwanted animals and really unhealthy animals.
And so he brought the puppy in, the puppy couldn’t make him any money, he wanted it euthanized. And the folks at PARL said yeah, no, we’re not going to euthanize this puppy. What we’re going to do is we’re going to take it and we’re going to foster this puppy. So Harvey went to a wonderful foster mom who nursed him by hand for months and months. Harvey’s face, as you can see in the book, is a bit asymmetrical, but he’s just the most wonderful dog.
There was another puppy called Tallulah who ended up being name Freyja who’s in the book. This one, she was brought as a puppy into Potter League and the guy said, I’ve got this sick puppy, what do I do with it. Essentially, they asked can you give us your phone number, can you give us you name, can you give us your address, we’ll take the puppy and we’ll treat it for you. He gave them a fake name, he refused to give his address, the guy was super shady. This was an incredibly sick puppy, she had parvo, which is highly contagious and can wipe out entire shelters of dogs. Very touch and go, she went into ICU, and she wasn’t really supposed to make it. Again, an entire community of people came together to save this puppy who then went into another loving foster home who raised her, and they ended up adopting her in the end and now she’s a total terror.
The cover dog, Vivian, was a local dog who I adore. She was the senior dog. She kind of represents all of the senior rescue dogs who are dumped at shelters. She was brought in, the woman had her — and I try not to vilify people who are surrendering dogs, because it’s not helpful at all. I don’t know what the situation was, but in the end it’s actually really good that she surrendered Vivian because Vivian had diabetes, she was super sick, she wouldn’t have made it through the weekend, but she happened to be brought to Providence Animal Control. They called a wonderful woman who fosters locally and funds dogs that are very sick. And they said, we’ve got this dog, we’re closed for the weekend, and we don’t think she’s going to make it till Monday, and this is a thirteen-year-old half-blind senior who had been with one owner her entire life. And Trisha took Vivian in, got her on insulin, just did some incredible vet work with her and fostered her and how a year-and-a-half later, she’s still with us and just thriving.
How do you find the individual stories of the dogs?
I’ve been doing this for so long that I have a pretty extensive network of animal people that I reach out to when I have an idea or a need. But also because of that network, I see the dogs that they have coming in or they’ll text me and say, hey, we just got this dog in. When I set out to do this book, I reached out to all of them and said, hey, I’m looking for dogs with exceptional stories, can you let me know when you get somebody in? And then all of these dogs just started coming in and there was no shortage of subjects to choose from. I could make fifteen of these books. There’s an endless number of just absolutely fascinating, riveting stories that these dogs have all over the country.
Which local organizations you work with, and what role they play in your work?
I work with a lot of them. Potter League, Providence Animal Rescue League, Rhode Island SPCA, Shelter to Sofa, which is a brand new organization. For a book that’s coming out in the fall I actually worked with Heart of RI East Greenwich Animal Protection League.
Things have changed now — most shelters don’t necessarily need a photographer coming in to photograph their dogs because everyone has an iPhone and most of their staffers can get decent pictures of the dogs to put up on Facebook and Instagram and everything, but when they have a really tough dog, a dog who’s been there a very long time, isn’t getting visibility, isn’t getting adopted, sometimes they’ll reach out to me and I’ll come and just volunteer and do portraits of those dogs to try to help them get adopted. I used to volunteer an enormous amount. It’s been scaled back since I’ve been a mom, but I still try to volunteer any time they need me, which is less than they used to. Generally, all of these organizations will reach out to me and let me know when they have a dog that they think might be of interest to one of my projects.
What is it like photographing dogs versus photographing people? I think you’re the first artist I’ve ever heard refer to their photos of animals as portraits.
That’s really important to me. I very strongly believe you can make a portrait of an animal. I think any living thing is worthy of a portrait, but dogs, particularly, are extremely easy to make portraits of because their faces are very emotive, their eyes are really soulful. A portrait is generally a head-and-shoulders-and-face painting or photo that sort of looks into the soul of the subject. I find it’s just extraordinarily easy to do that with dogs because there is so much soul in there to uncover.
I love working with people; I think dogs are much easier. Dogs are simpler. Their needs are simpler. Their expectations are simpler. Usually just a nice piece of cheese will get them on your side. People are a little more complicated.
Do you have any funny mishaps from your photography sessions?
I’ve been doing this for so long, I don’t even remember all of them. I don’t know if I see them as mishaps, but I end up leaving really dirty. My camera usually gets licked multiple times. Sometimes they try to eat my gear. That’s rare. But, sometimes they do.
Do you have a dog? What’s your dog story?
I have two dogs. I would have many more dogs if I didn’t live in such a small house in the city. I have one rescue dog and his name is Pip, and he’s a transport, actually, although we brought him up personally from North Carolina. I’m originally from North Carolina, and there’s so many dogs in need down there. Up here we really don’t have hounds and labs and breeds like that available for adoption, and I really wanted a hound. He’s a basset hound golden mix.
My other dog, Rosie, is actually a purebred. She was given to me by a friend. She’s a cavalier King Charles spaniel, and she’s incredible. Some people really react badly to that, but one of the messages that I do talk about in Forever Home a little bit is there really is an important place for responsible, ethical breeders in our society. And we need them, and we need to support them. There’s a huge difference between a responsible, ethical breeder and a backyard breeder or a puppy mill.
What is your hope for people who read your work for the first time?
I hope to inspire people to adopt, to volunteer. Everybody has something worthwhile that they can share with whatever chosen charity they pick. Maybe you don’t have money to donate but you have skills, you have time. Maybe you’re an accountant. Maybe you’re a photographer. Maybe you’re a graphic designer. There’s something I believe that all of us have that we can use to help a charity or an organization in a really positive way. So, I definitely hope that people see my work and are inspired to perhaps do more for animals. To also think about animals, dogs particularly, but all animals as the sentient beings that they are.
You’re from North Carolina originally. How did you end up in Providence?
I had always had this really idyllic vision of New England, and when I was in college at NC State, I was in radio and there was a contest. Basically I won the Dick Clark broadcasting award when I was a junior in college by creating this PSA campaign about AIDS, which was a really big topic at that time. Part of that award was coming up to Brown for the summer for a fellowship. At the time, there was an organization that was the National Association of College Broadcasters that was anchored at Brown University. And so I spent the summer at Brown working with them to produce that campaign that I wrote nationally to be distributed to college radio stations all over the country. I lived at a graduate dorm at Brown that I still drive by almost every day and worked with them at that organization, and I just really loved Providence. And so when I graduated from college, I moved here. I was going to photo school in Boston doing a program at New England School of Photography, which sadly just closed after many, many years.
Is there anything else about the book that you wanted to share?
The reason I chose to call it Forever Home was not only because it was the third in a trilogy that followed Finding Home, but I think I really wanted to show in this book that for a homeless dog, for a dog that has entered the shelter system or a dog that has been a victim of backyard breeding or a puppy mill rescue, it’s a long road. It’s a long journey. As they say, the journey to a forever home is rarely a straight line. Most of these dogs have changed hands so many times or have had these stories that if you transpose that story onto a human, it would be really, really harrowing and epic and heartbreaking. They all found their happy ending, but it was in a lot of cases a really long journey to get there. It really, really takes a village to save an animal in a lot of cases. And of course, in many cases, there just isn’t a village available. There aren’t enough resources, there aren’t enough volunteers, there aren’t enough funds. These are the lucky ones.