Photograph by Martin Schoeller
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Layka, a Belgian Malinois who served with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Photograph by Martin Schoeller

Meet Layka, a Three-Legged War Hero

Go behind the scenes of photographer Martin Schoeller's portrait shoot of this remarkable dog of war.

For portrait photographer Martin Schoeller, known for his signature eye-to-eye, full-face portraits, the least of his worries is having his subject stand still on the X marked on his seamless background. But when it came to a three-legged decorated war hero, one leg lost to surgery after taking four rounds from an AK-47, this was exactly the problem.

Layka, a Belgian Malinois, a breed known to have inexhaustible energy—the highest of all dog breeds—graced the June 2014 cover of National Geographic magazine. “She was a celebrity in her own right,” Martin said, and after capturing a few frames, “I knew I had my hands full.”

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Martin was going for a dignified look, fitting of a war dog that almost gave her life to save a squad of soldiers in Afghanistan. “The dog is basically a soldier and we treated her with the respect of a military person,” Martin said. “She’s not a lap dog that sits on the sofa, but a disciplined fighting dog.” He wanted to capture her in this spirit. To do that, Martin knew he had to photograph her with her mouth closed. And that was the tough part.

“The close-up was harder than I thought it was going to be, the dog was so full energy,” Martin said. She was “like the energy bunny and never slowed down.” As a result she got hot during the shoot and was heavily panting—and out came her tongue. The dog just couldn’t sit still.

“We took her outside to run a bit of energy out of her, and she was so quick on her feet that I you couldn’t even tell that she only had three legs.” But that didn’t seem to slow her down. “We used the tennis ball, made noise, jangled keys trying to capture her attention like a baby,” Martin said. He gave up on the tennis ball because she just got too excited when she saw it and lurched off the X.

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So Martin hunkered down, lowered the thermostat to 62°F and got to work. Layka’s owner, Staff Sgt. Julian McDonald, was at her side, comforting and encouraging his dog with all his love and affection.

Soldier Adopts Dog That Saved His Life

While serving in Afghanistan, U.S. military combat dog Layka was shot four times by the enemy at point-blank range. Despite her injuries, she still attacked and subdued the shooter, saving her handler and the other members of the team. Seven hours of surgery and the amputation of one leg saved her life. Her handler, Staff Sgt. Julian McDonald, fought hard to adopt her and she’s now become a part of his family.

Exceptional portrait photographers have the ability to connect soul-to-soul with their subjects. Mentally bobbing and weaving like a boxer in a ring to capture that elusive moment—the twinkle in the eye, the sought after expression, the special facial gesture, until they know they have it. Martin went several rounds before he landed what he knew was the knockout punch. He connected with Layka for a split second and grabbed the prize he was after.

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Read more about the June 2014 feature story, “The Dogs of War”. To see more of Schoeller’s work, visit his website.