Photographer Martin Usborne was seriously disturbed by the plight of the Spanish hunting dog. Bred for their speed and agility, Usborne says up to 100,000 dogs are abandoned or killed at the end of the Spanish hare-coursing season because they are deemed too old or too slow. To bring attention to this practice, Usborne spent two years photographing rescued hunting dogs in the areas where they are often abandoned or killed, including the sides of roads, ravines, rivers, and parking lots.
But even the rescue dogs are shattered and scarred. According to an organization dedicated to rescuing two common breeds of these dogs—the galgo (Spanish greyhound) and the podenco— these animals have often been starved, deprived of affection, and kept chained in dark sheds. I corresponded with Usborne and asked about his work with these neglected yet elegant animals.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: What inspired you to work on a project about hunting dogs?
MARTIN USBORNE: I had taken a year out to travel the world and see how many animals I could save (which I am writing up as a book), and during my travels I came across the story of these beautiful dogs in Spain being abandoned en masse and knew I had to make a photography project about their plight. I was drawn to the painful contradictions in their story: such beautiful dogs with a regal history—they used to be associated with nobility many centuries ago—but with such an ugly modern story of abuse and abandonment. They had such strong and elegant bodies, which were also often damaged or weakened.
JANNA: What were you looking for when you selected the individual dogs?
MARTIN: I was looking for dogs that captured something of these contradictions—that were regal but also vulnerable, beautiful but also scarred, proud but nervous. I also wanted a variation of breeds and colors as well.
JANNA: How and where did you find these dogs?
MARTIN: I worked primarily in two rescue centers in Andalusia. One center is very large and the other is small but both do incredible work picking up abandoned dogs and finding them new homes. Their work swims against the increasing tide of abandonment, relying almost entirely on donations and the goodwill of people who want to adopt the dogs.
JANNA: How did you get the dogs to pose for you?
MARTIN: In many ways I didn’t want the dogs to pose at all—and nor could I make them pose. These were scared, nervous, and often distrustful [dogs], which meant they moved a lot and I had little time with each dog. I also didn’t want to cause them distress. Nevertheless, I wanted to capture something of their discomfort, their nervousness, to tell their story. I didn’t want a perfect pose exuding calm. I normally worked with someone else, preferably a volunteer who knew the dogs, who would help to calm them down a little just so they would be in front of the camera, but other than that I wanted them to be themselves.
JANNA: What kind of look did you want your photographs to have?
MARTIN: My images reference the mood, color, and tones of Velázquez paintings. He lived and worked in the same area where I took these pictures and also at a time when the dogs were still considered regal and associated with nobility. Although he didn’t typically paint dogs or landscapes he painted with an intensity and drama that I wanted in my images.
JANNA: You sometimes describe your photos as dark, which strikes me as unusual for animal photography. Why do you choose to take this approach?
MARTIN: My work is driven by two things that I’ve spent a long time trying to reconcile but realize now are actually deeply intertwined. Firstly, I’m deeply concerned with the rift between humans and (other) animals and want to bring awareness to this painful divide. We are separated from other animals by language, technology, and a fatal arrogance that causes immense pain. Secondly, I’m interested in exploring my own darkness, which is another sort of separation, from one part of myself to another. I became interested in animals—particularly dogs—when I was very young and when I had a hard time speaking and felt a deep sense of vulnerability. Both of these things—my concern for animals and my weaknesses—are one and the same. A yearning for understanding, compassion, and connection.
JANNA: What was it like to photograph these animals?
MARTIN: To be honest I found the whole process emotionally exhausting—going back so many times and seeing so many new dogs. So many of the dogs were scared and resistant to touch that I really didn’t want to spend too long photographing them or [imposing] upon them. Some were impossible to console or comfort, others less so but still unsure of themselves. I tried to give them what care and attention I could, but I also didn’t want to stress them. On the whole the greyhounds and smaller hunting dogs were fairly timid by nature so it wasn’t always so easy.
JANNA: What do you want people to take away from these photographs?
MARTIN: At the very least I hope they engage with the beauty of the dogs and the ugliness of their story. I hope it makes people realize what is going on without confronting people with harsh images.
JANNA: What do you think humans can learn from dogs?
MARTIN: That we are animals too. That we are capable of immense love and trust but also of abusing that love and trust. A dog can show us how to love and live in the most direct and simple way possible.