Flower crowns and pastel colors aren’t likely the first things that come to mind when you think about pit bulls.
This is what French photographer Sophie Gamand is counting on. Coming from a country where pit bulls are banned, Gamand wasn’t deterred from opening her mind (and heart) to these dogs at the center of highly contentious debate. She wanted to work on a series of pit bull portraits that would challenge her own preconceived notions. But to do so, she had to get past her own fears.
“I was apprehensive when I tied the first flower crown on a dog’s head,” she says. “The first time I did it, I thought, ‘I’m going to lose my face!’ The dog just sat there and looked at me; she was so peaceful, she didn’t even shake her head. She just sat there and looked at me with deep, soulful eyes. After that, the shoot was easy.”
Gamand knows that pit bulls are controversial in the U.S. “I’m more of a ‘gray area’ kind of person,” she says. “I don’t believe everything is black or white. With pit bulls there are very strong advocates … but also a lot of hate towards those dogs. I thought that the truth must be somewhere in the middle, so I wanted to find that truth for myself. The best way I knew how was to do a photo series.”
Though she’s not what she calls a “girly girl,” Gamand came up with the idea of putting flower crowns on the dog’s heads and washing them in warm tones.
“I wanted something that was going to be very soft and feminine,” she says. “I wanted them to look faded, like old vintage art. I wanted to give a sense of nostalgia and all that is lost.”
Her first thought? “Wow, these are so cheesy—they look like grandmothers in flower hats.”
Gamand believes that art works best when it highlights contradictions. “To take a ‘scary’ dog and then put flowers on their head and give them the granny look—it’s such a strong opposition,” she says.
She admits that although she wanted to explore the situation for herself, she still had reservations about pit bulls. But what she discovered wasn’t as extreme as she expected. “Some pit bulls are problematic because of how they [were] raised,” she says. “But all the dogs I’ve photographed are great dogs. I’ve put flower crowns on 250 pit bulls, so I have very wide access to a lot of different dogs.”
Gamand says she hopes that the effervescent nature of the pictures will help people to connect to the plight of pit bulls, which she says are euthanized by the hundreds of thousands every year. “I’m basically using art to force people to linger longer on these pictures, which creates an emotional response and connection to the dogs—it allows for the debate to be a little more interesting,” she says.
“It’s like art with a mission, which is kind of the best art there is.”