To Know the Love of a Dog: An Interview with Photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky

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Grey Muzzle President Jenny Kachnic with Nekia. © Jane Sobel Klonsky
 
As our dogs age, many of us wish for a way to hold on to them forever. Since 2012, photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky has used her camera to make that possible, capturing precious moments between people and their senior dogs. Klonsky, known for her lifestyle photography, has crisscrossed the country taking pictures that testify to the power of the human-canine bond. These images will become, she hopes, "universal representations of the emotions dog-lovers around the world have experienced.”

Bill and Oak. © Jane Sobel Klonsky
Her photo series, entitled Project Unconditional, will culminate in a book of photographs and stories. For now, those who preview her photos on the Project Unconditional website and Facebook page can see images that convey deep affection, nostalgia, and sometimes a sense of impending loss. Her canine subjects are at the heart of each photo; at times, the humans who accompany them are only visible in the background or as a loving pair of hands. 

What Klonsky really documents is love, often more than a decade in the making and frequently going beyond that of human and pet. A number of her photographs focus on the close relationships forged between working dogs and their handlers. There are, for instance: Dolores with Savannah, the Labrador Retriever who has guided her for eight years; Bill and retired bomb-sniffer Oak; and a cowboy named Blackie whose Heeler mix, Cody, works the herd at his side.

Several rescue dogs are also represented, along with the people who found and cared for them. In Virginia, a woman named Polly is photographed holding puppy-mill survivor Roxie, while in Massachusetts, Tim is seen nose-to-nose with his dog Neblina. In the story that accompanies his photo, Tim recalls finding Neblina 15 years earlier as a homeless puppy in Mexico: “Nearly starving, covered with fleas and sores, I almost didn’t pick her up. At the urging of a friend, I did, and only minutes passed before I knew I would never set her down."

Ginger from Virginia Beach SPCA. © Jane Sobel Klonsky
For almost four decades, Klonsky's work in commercial, travel and sports photography has taken her around the globe. This new project has already sent her from her home in Vermont to more than a dozen other states. After contacting Grey Muzzle, she was put in touch with some of the organizations and dogs around the country helped by Grey Muzzle grants. At Muttville in San Francisco, she met Patty, who posed surrounded by the dogs she helps, and through the Virginia Beach SPCA, Klonsky had a photo session with Ginger and her adopters, Nikki and Julie, (read Ginger's story here); even Grey Muzzle President Jennifer Kachnic was photographed in Colorado with her therapy dog Nekia.

Before Jane heads off to Alaska to photograph retired sled dogs, she was asked to share even more with us at Grey Muzzle by answering some of our questions about her project:

What was your inspiration for Project Unconditional?
 
Jane Sobel Klonsky: I am fortunate. My two passions collided to embody this project; it was pure serendipity. My first passion, and my livelihood, is photography. And, for as long as I can remember, my other great passion is a love of dogs. For years I have toyed with the idea of producing a group of images combining both of these passions, but never seemed to find the right catalyst.By chance, in March 2012, I was sitting in the office of my insurance broker, Angela, whose old Bulldog, Clementine, came to work with her everyday. Clemmie would happily lie on a comfy bed next to Angela’s desk. It was always an endearing sight and, on this visit, I found myself considerably more interested in Angela and Clemmie than I was in the insurance questions I came to ask. I decided to tell Angela about my idea for a doggy photo project. She agreed to let me come and photograph Clemmie, along with her and her husband Phil. It was after we shot those first images that I realized that what I really wanted to document was the very special relationship and connection between people and their dogs in the twilight of their lives.

You mention that dogs are one of your passions. What role have they played in your own life?
 
I have literally always had a dog. When I was growing up, we had a cocker spaniel named Nika who was quite the neighborhood "hussy" (in her 17 years, she had 6 litters of pups). I remember keeping the one pup from her fifth litter. Back then dogs were either just purebreds or mutts, so we called this puppy a "spoodle." Now, of course, he'd be known as a "Cockapoo."
 
So, dogs are an integral part of my life. I talk, laugh, cry to my dogs and they listen. They don't ask for anything more than pure love and sustenance. Their companionship is unconditional, and because of it, I have actually rearranged my life around the dogs. My husband Arthur and I spent two years on the road with two Great Danes in a motorhome traveling around the United States for a photographic book project.
 
Dogs keep me honest. They remind me of what is important in life—they center me and challenge me to clarify my values. They remind me to keep things simple. You get out of a relationship with a dog what you put into it…not unlike relationships with people.

Before starting Project Unconditional, you had a long and successful career in commercial and sports photography; how does photographing people and their dogs compare with your other photographic subjects? Have you encountered any particular challenges?
 

Mary and Walter © Jane Sobel Klonsky
It's not unlike every other shoot I've done. They are all completely different from the shoot before. "New day, new subject, new shoot – fresh." As far as how I go about these shoots, it's about making both the dogs and the people comfor. I try different things, being sure not to force the photos, but rather to let them evolve organically. It's interesting to me to make time to talk to the people, play with the dog, watch the interaction between them. It's funny, now that you ask, I realize that in many of the shoots, the people are a little stiff when we begin and they tell me that they just want photos of their dog, but within a few minutes, when the focus is on the dog, the people begin to relax. Before you know it, the conservative business man is rolling around on the grass with his dog, or the female attorney is lying on the living room floor getting her face "licked clean" by her dog.

Sometimes I feel like a therapist, because once I ask folks to open up about their relationship with their dog, they want to talk—to tell me their story and what their dog means to them. It's really great!

As far as challenges, the only "challenges" I've come up against are the shoots where the dogs are in the last weeks or days of their lives. The exceptional one in these cases for me is to create beautiful images that will be helpful and cherished when the dog passes. The only other challenge I've encountered is environment. How do I do justice to the connection I see in the companions, given the place we've chosen to meet. Be it a home, a gym, a field, the ocean…they all pose a challenge to me. But they are good ones.

Of all the photographs you have taken of people and their dogs, is there one that is your favorite?
 
Wow, that's like asking if I have a favorite child! There have been so many amazing experiences that I can't rank them. They are all unique people, with unique dogs, and unique stories. Even when the story seems as though it is similar to another, there's a twist or a nuance that I'd never imagined. It's been incredible to see the reactions people have to the photos and stories – everybody has been blown away with how people are baring their raw emotions.

What have you learned from your project so far?

Well, I am finding that a lot of people are just not ready to let go of their dogs. They are truly having a tough time of it. And it makes me think about what we've done in society about extending our human

Jywanza and Guiding Eyes Dog Bentley. © Jane Sobel Klonsky
lives with technological and pharmaceutical "magic." This has certainly carried over into the lives of our companion animals…veterinarians, acupuncturists, herbalists, massage therapists, chemotherapy…all of this to keep them alive longer. I feel like this has both pluses and minuses. I've felt bad for some dogs who are in their late teens, who are incredibly stoic but simply can't stand up any longer. We, as their caregivers, are being given the choice/authority to end their lives…yikes! 
 
Overall, I am thrilled with the privilege to share these companionships. And I feel as though I am giving people, most of whom are not writers, an opportunity put down on paper these incredibly deep feelings. They have often commented that it has been extremely cathartic to share, to anticipate a finality, and to know that others will read what they've put down. Sometimes it's taken six months for folks to send me their paragraphs. All in all, I feel it's been a privilege, like I said before.

What’s next for Project Unconditional?
 
I'm currently working with an agent to secure a publisher for a book of both images and short stories from each of the subjects. The working title of the book is Unconditional.
 
I've been all over the country meeting and photographing these folks and I am headed to Alaska in late August to photograph retired Iditarod dogs and their mushers. And I'll be in San Diego late September, doing some work with Lionel's Legacy, a new Grey Muzzle grantee.
 
You can follow Jane Sobel Klonsky's photographic journey at www.projectunconditional.info, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.
 
Profile and interview by K.E. Magoon, Grey Matters Blog Manager and Editor.