At first glance, Sophie Gamand’s photographs of pit bulls, that most maligned and feared breed of canines, are simply lovely. Each artfully depicts a pooch, bedecked endearingly with a crown of flowers, in a three-quarter shot, staring directly into the camera. Despite the pit bull’s fearsome reputation, there is no malice in these dogs’ gazes. Look for even a moment longer and it becomes clear that there is nearly everything else but malice to be found there. Instead, intelligence shines through in her portraits, and curiosity, and often gentle, even goofy, good humor. Some dogs seem a bit melancholy, others positively joyous, but in all there is what might be best described as nobility.
Which is, of course, exactly what Gamand intended when she began taking pittie portraits in 2014, as part of her volunteer work photographing shelter dogs. The hope was that the images would help get the animals adopted, but Gamand, who was born and raised outside of Lyon, France, and now lives in New York, found herself unable to work effectively with them. A victim of a dog mauling in her teens, she had also bought into the propaganda about pit bulls and was uncomfortable around the breed.
“I wanted to do a project that would force me to hang out with a lot of pit bulls so I’d get to know them and get over my fear, but I was also curious to see if I could change the way society sees them,” Gamand explains. “Back then, upwards of 800,000 pit bulls were being euthanized every year, and it was because of the public’s perception of these dogs. My project was about portraying them as soulful beings, because even if we’re afraid of something, it doesn’t mean that being doesn’t have a soul and fears and wants and feelings, that it doesn’t deserve being treated with respect and dignity.”
Almost as soon as she’d posted them, Gamand’s images of the dogs in her handmade crowns went viral. She began taking more, finding the pitties surprisingly amenable to modeling their floral tiaras, thanks to the “sit and stay” training the shelters teach—
and copious amounts of treats. She has since shot about 450 photographs, publishing the stunning coffee-table book Pit Bull Flower Power in 2018. Her work has helped the dogs immeasurably, resulting in adoptions for some that had been languishing in shelters for more than a half-decade.
Gamand sells her books—she’s also published Wet Dog, a deeply charming collection of soggy doggy photos—and other goods through her website. The profits and the money she raises through her Patreon account help fund her shelter-dog images and other advocacy work, both here and abroad. Although Gamand is currently on break from her pittie project, it seems certain she’ll return to it. Her enduring love for them will keep her working to save as many as she can.
“I feel like there are no species in the realm of souls,” she says. “We’re all on the same level, and if people could slow down and stop and look at animals in their eyes, they would see that. So what’s special about dogs? Nothing more than any creature on earth, and everything at the same time.”