It’s almost impossible for me to introduce this story without acknowledging just how much I love dogs. When I saw photographer Andrew Fladeboe’s stunning portraits of farm and sheep dogs in Norway and New Zealand, I was hooked. Since technology and industry have changed the way we work, animals are more often viewed as pets than working companions. It’s almost easy to forget that dogs, in particular, were once heavily bred for working. While we might know what our pet retriever’s life looks like, it’s fascinating to see the current-day world of rural working dogs. Most of the dogs are whip smart breeds that meld both agility and intelligence seamlessly. I corresponded with Fladeboe over email and asked him about his project, “The Shepherd’s Realm.”
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: What inspired you to work on these portraits?
ANDREW FLADEBOE: Animals have been one of my favorite subjects since I was a little kid, so focusing on them was a natural direction for my photography. During my first volume of “The Shepherd’s Realm” series I took a portrait of a dog named Molly of Clashnettie in Scotland. To me that picture represented the dog in such a noble and individual way; it was special. I figured that I could do something really interesting and new if I focused on dogs. The more I researched dogs the more I fell in love with them and their history.
JANNA: Why did you feel it was important to document working dogs, as opposed to other subjects?
ANDREW: I find the story of the working dog fascinating. Since that first gray wolf walked up to the campfire and made a pact with humanity 30,000-plus years ago, they have been working by our side in a number of roles. The very fact that two hunting species who competed for the same prey were able to team up together is quite unlikely and uncanny. We have evolved together. The dogs developing to fit the wide range of roles we asked of them, while we evolved into agricultural and industrial societies. Working dogs are still in widespread use today, and in fact the number of jobs they can perform grows every year. To me they represent the god’s greatest gift to humanity, a species sagacious and noble, willing to do whatever we ask of them and only asking for some food and a pat on the head in return.
JANNA: How did you get the dogs to pose? What did you tell their owners?
ANDREW: Some of the photos are more documentary style, but most are set up portraits. Luckily I’ve been photographing working dogs lately so I’m usually dealing with well-trained dogs that know the meaning of “stay.” I use two lights and basically instruct the owner that I need the dog to stand somewhat still in the general area. The dog usually gets bored after a few minutes, so we walk the dog around and reset. I instruct the owners to walk behind me to get the dog to look a certain way. I’m often lying in the ground to get the angle I want, covered in mud, and I’m pretty sure I look like a crazy person. Each dog is a little different, but that’s the general idea. I actually think the owners enjoy it, it’s kind of a challenge for them.
JANNA: What do you think most people don’t realize about working dogs?
ANDREW: How much they live to work. They love it. Yes, often they live hard and short lives, but for a dog like a border collie, they are happiest when they have a job to do. I feel much worse for a border collie that lives in a big city than one that is worked to the bone on a farm.
JANNA: Did you have any favorite portrait sessions where something unusual happened?
ANDREW: There is one time where I cut my hand pretty bad early in the shoot. I had been working a week as a farmhand for this farmer to get an opportunity to photograph his dog one on one. So I grab my hanky and wrap up my hand, and get to work. I’m rolling around in sheep s—, with blood getting all over my camera, and this hardcase farmer posing his dog [Ned of Hiburn] on a rock.
Some dogs are just natural hams too. At Te Hapu one of their dogs just instinctively knew where to stand and how to pose. I’d be walking along, notice a beautiful vista and think that I’d want to come back and do a proper portrait with a dog there. Next thing I know Asher would come running up and stand there like something from a postage stamp. It was uncanny.
JANNA: Do you think humans will continue to use dogs in working roles beyond drug sniffing and security in the future?
ANDREW: Absolutely. Especially in mobility situations. Each year the training requirements are getting better, so mobility dogs can perform more tasks. They are truly the Rolls Royce of mobility for the visually and physically impaired. It really enhances their quality of life.
There is also research going on utilizing the dogs’ sense of smell to detect cancers and seizures. Its an exciting time for working dogs. And of course they are still so important to so many sheep and livestock farmers around the world. Nothing can replace a good sheepdog.
JANNA: What did you learn through your experience of photographing these dogs?
ANDREW: Through my adventures photographing dogs, I’ve learned so much about their importance to humanity across different cultures and demographics. One fact that stands out is how devoted the dogs are to their owners and handlers. They will do anything that is asked of them and work nonstop through any kind of weather or terrain. And how much fun they have while doing it. I remember looking at a sheepdog’s face as he looked up to his owner after a rough ten-hour muster; it was filled with pure joy and dedication. I hate to resort to a cliche, but dogs truly are man’s best friend, if we let them be.