The emotional honesty of dogs

Man's best friend proves to be photographer Martin Usborne's most inspirational subject matter

You Look Great
(Image credit: Martin Usborne)

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Alfie (Martin Usborne)

For his 2012 series "The Silence of Dogs in Cars," British photographer Martin Usborne first tried to shoot documentary style. He took his camera and traipsed around London supermarkets and parking lots looking for pets left waiting for their owners in cars. "When I couldn't find any, I made barking sounds to see if they were just sleeping," he said in a phone interview.

When serendipity didn't produce the outcome he was looking for, Usborne created it himself. First he scouted dogs, cars, and locations that appealed to him. Then, over the course of about three years, he married the elements together, carefully choreographing the mood of the dog, the look of the vehicle, and the nuance of the lighting for that perfect shot.

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The result is a haunting set of abandoned canines that exhibit the rawest of emotions, from bereavement and confusion to anger and resignation. Over the course of the 41 images, the dogs begin to resemble dejected humans — the slumped shoulders, hanging head — who are just realizing their lonely realities.

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Shep (Martin Usborne)

"What I like about dogs is that they have immediate emotions," Usborne said. "You can see whether they are happy or sad — there's no bullshit."

And it is that emotional honestly that Usborne examines in his most recently completed series, "Nice to Meet You."

Using rescue dogs, Usborne pairs simple conversational sentences — "I'm Fine," "Nice to Meet You," "You Look Great" — with a dog whose face and expression are obscured in some way — by smoke or a cloth, for example.

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(Martin Usborne)

In "Nice to Meet You," the dogs are used to illustrate how humans suppress their feelings. "It's about the way we mask our more wild animal emotions — the things we don't want to show or say," Usborne said.

But the canine subjects are meant to encourage viewers to examine the way in which they separate themselves from animals, too. Our relationship with animals is duplicitous, Usborne said. We love and keep cats and dogs, but we kill and eat pigs and cows. "I think that we are a continuum from the animal world, but we act as if we are much different. I'm photographing the divide between us and the animals, whether its through the glass window or a thin sheet of silk," he said.

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(Martin Usborne)

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(Martin Usborne)

The ways in which we disconnect ourselves from animals is a theme that continues to fascinate Usborne and one, he said, that is likely to follow him throughout his career. "Nice to Meet You" helped the 40-year-old photographer recognize that divide within himself and inspired the project he's currently working on: "A Year to Help."

Usborne has sent himself out into the world to give back to the very subjects that have given him such artistic inspiration. Over the course of 365 days, he will try to save or help as many animals as he can while documenting each step. He will push his own discomfort and witness the life of a farm pig, from birth to death. He will flirt with his own safety by going undercover in the jungles of Laos to delve into the dangerous world of wildlife trade.

"Mostly it's about my own journey from someone who doesn't quite make sense of how I treat animals — I love them and I eat them — to trying to become more enlightened," he said. "I'm trying to understand the divide between man and animal and I'm trying, in this year, to yield that divide within myself."

**Check out Usborne's ongoing project and travels on his blog, A Year to Help.**

**See his complete series: "The Silence of Dogs in Cars" and "Nice to Meet You."**

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