In this post of Being Animal, Janet interviews photographer Gina Easley about her Kindred Spirits Project. Janet’s incisive questions highlight the artist’s skill at portraying the trans-species bond.
GE: A friend of mine casually mentioned her mother’s pet tortoise, Henry, who had been in their family for 50 years. I had never heard of anyone having a pet for that long and was so intrigued I asked to meet him and photograph the two of them together. Kathleen was happy to oblige and that experience really started it all. One of the things that stuck with me after that first meeting was Kathleen telling me that she’d had a longer relationship with Henry than anyone else, and that he has provided a sense of continuity and is a grounding presence in her life.
I thought about that a lot, and went home and researched how long the average marriage in the U.S. lasts, and found it to be around seven years. I realized then that a lot of people are with their pets longer than their spouses! My experience with Kathleen and Henry was so interesting, that I was compelled to meet and photograph more of these people and animals who had been together long term. I have a lot of animal-loving friends, so I put the word out and it didn’t take long before I found myself very busy with this series.
JK: What in the animal world has compelled you to do this work?
GE: I’ve always had a deep love for animals. I’ve been vegetarian for 25 years and am now moving toward being vegan. I’ve become increasingly aware of how the choices I make affect other living beings, and once I started becoming conscious of those things I realized there’s no turning back. I wanted not only to combine my love of animals and photography, but also make an impact, even if only a small one, in the goal of making the world a kinder place for animals.
JK: How do you feel photography, as a nonverbal medium, is able to capture the essence of the trans-species bonds shared by your subjects?
GE: The emotional impact from a photograph can go straight to the heart. I think sometimes, in matters of the heart, it can be more powerful to skip over words altogether. A photo is immediate, direct, and can’t rely on words to communicate a message, much like a connection to a beloved pet.
JK: Do you first have to establish a relationship with the animals photographed in your Kindred Spirits project before they reveal themselves fully, as you might have to do with a human subject?
GE: No, in fact a lot of the people and animals in this series were photographed just minutes after I met them for the first time. I do like to take some time to talk to the person, ask questions and get to know the animal a bit beforehand, but it is usually brief. Dogs will often sniff my camera, and me, when we meet, and I do take a few minutes to let them see that I’m friendly and non-threatening. But since the photos are about the relationship between the person and animal being photographed I haven’t found it necessary to spend a lot of time with them beforehand. That would be fun, but it isn’t always possible and hasn’t seemed in most cases to be necessary.
JK: There is something I see in your pictures of children that I also see in your pictures of humans and animals in close relationships: an inner landscape, and conscious subjectivity, perhaps. Is this something you are looking for in your photographs?
GE: It’s not an intentional thing that I’m doing, but I think I understand what you’re seeing. I believe the similarity to be an element of openness and innocence, which is something I’ve always been drawn to as subject matter for my photos.
JK: Do you find that your Kindred Spirits project makes visible, relational elements that are universal across species? Can you speak about what those elements might be, from your vantage point as a photographer?
GE: The one thing that all of the animals in this series share is their dependence on a person to care for all of their needs. These are well-loved animals and therefore I believe you see not only their dependence but also their trust in their human counterpart. That trust is mutual and flows back and forth between human and animal, and I believe that is something that is reflected in the photos.
JK: Viewing your photographs of human/animal relationships evokes some of the tenderness and depth of feeling I experience personally with other animals. Do you think those who do not have close bonds with animals are able to see these elements also?
GE: This is such a good question! And it makes me curious to know the answer, too. I’ve never had anyone tell me that they’re someone who doesn’t have a close bond with animals, so I’m not sure what those people are seeing when they view the photos. I’d love to know, though. Most of the people I hear from are those who really relate to the work because they have had a deep bond with an animal, or a love of animals in general.
JK: Do you think the physical aspects of the bonds you photograph are particularly important?
GE: Definitely. One of the first things I ask people is “how do you and your pet generally interact with each other?” so that I don’t try to force something that is unnatural. Some animals love to be cuddled and held close. Others are more hands off or independent, or prefer interacting through movement or play. The first time I photographed Kathleen and her tortoise, Henry, this series hadn’t yet taken shape. So I was thinking mostly in terms of composition, and asked Kathleen to hold Henry on her lap so I could get them both in the photo.
We got a few shots like that but Henry was clearly confused and uncomfortable, because being held on Kathleen’s lap was not something that they would normally do. Since then I’ve tried to not ask the animals to do anything that feels too much out of the norm. Just yesterday I photographed a woman with her 18 year old dog. In the past year he has become uncomfortable with being touched, so we took photos of him standing next to her or just being nearby, staying true to their relationship as it really is now.
GE: I hope that people can feel the love in these photos. It would be so gratifying to me if seeing this series touched something inside the viewer that moved them to become more deeply bonded with their own pet, or to consider adopting a pet in need, or giving a donation to a rescue organization; anything that would help in the cause of making this world a kinder, friendlier place for animals and people to co-exist.
JK: The Kindred Spirits Project illustrates the transformative nature of trans-species relationships, through your own personal artistic lens. Is there an aspect of embodiment that you bring to your photo shoots that helps to support your own process as a photographer?
GE: I feel that I’ve been changed, in a very good way, by the relationships I’ve had with my own pets through the years. Currently, I have a dog, Simon, who is almost 10. I adopted him from a shelter when he was 2 months old and I was newly divorced. There were times, during those puppy days, when I felt I’d made a mistake and was in over my head.
Thankfully, we survived that time because we were rewarded with a very strong bond, a friendship that is unlike any other in my life. I believe we can read each other’s minds. He is so sensitive to me that if I’m in a bad mood, even though I’m not expressing it, he can feel it and slinks off to the basement for a little alone time. He opens my heart in a way that is completely unique and I’m so grateful for him.
I also have a cat, Mister, whom I inherited from my mom when she passed away six years ago. At first, I was grieving and wasn’t the best caretaker for him but my husband, a cat lover, stepped in to give him all the attention he needed. Once my grief subsided, I realized what an incredible gift it is, to be able to care for my mom’s cat, which is in a way like being able to keep actively loving her through this act. And it wasn’t long before I grew to love him deeply, for who he is.
Six weeks ago we adopted a seven-year-old French Bulldog that we’ve named Sister. She was a breeder in a puppy mill and never had the life of “normal” dog. Thankfully she was rescued by a great organization and we were given the chance to adopt her. It is an entirely different situation with her. Frenchies don’t have really long lifespans to begin with, and she’s had a rough life until now. I’m keeping my expectations low as to how long we will get to have her but hoping for the best. We already love and trust each other and that is just amazing. I’ve loved and lost a number of pets throughout my life and I can’t imagine doing this type of photo project without having had those experiences.
Being Animal is a blogspot written by Kerulos faculty and board member, Janet Kaylo. Being Animal addresses inter-species topics and relationships through interviews with artists, dancers, and others about their embodied experiences fostering trans-species communication, respect and well-being. Janet holds an MA with Distinction in Jungian and Post Jungian Studies from the University of Essex, Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, UK. She is also a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist, Somatic Movement Therapist, Movement Analyst, and Founder of Laban/Bartenieff and Somatic Studies International, which presents professional certification in Movement Analysis and Somatic Practice.