Shaffer: Dog photographer in Raleigh shows hope at edge of abyss

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 11, 2013 

  • If you go

    The Wake County Animal Center will hold an adoption day Saturday and Sunday at Pet Supplies Plus, 3074 Wake Forest Road in Raleigh. The event lasts from noon to 4 p.m. Dogs are spayed, neutered and supplied with a microchip, and the adoption fee is $25.

    See Shannon Johnstone’s pictures at or at the Friends of the Wake County Animal Center page on Facebook.

— Every week, Shannon Johnstone takes one dog for a walk to the top of the old North Wake Landfill, a 470-foot peak built from 20 years of Raleigh garbage.

It’s a park now, covered with dirt, grass and a polyethylene liner.

But for Johnstone, an art professor at Meredith College, this Kilimanjaro of trash serves as a dark metaphor.

The dogs she brings to the top all come from the Wake County Animal Center. All of them have been homeless for at least two weeks, and some of them for more than a year.

They persist in cages, lonely, confused and threatened with euthanasia if they can’t get adopted – a final-option scenario that would send their remains to a landfill much like this one used to be.

On their way to the top, Johnstone photographs each dog with her Canon 5D camera, capturing them as they graze on landfill grass and taste the air at one of Wake County’s highest points. Her pictures are both haunting and uplifting, hopeful and grim – an invitation to love and a glimpse at death.

Rose. Mistletoe. Julius. Partridge. Momma. Percy. They’re Johnstone’s landfill dogs: 66 so far. Some found homes right away. Some returned to their cages. Five of them died.

It’s like photographing a grandfather in a cemetery. Close to the edge, nearing the end, the subject becomes more beautiful as you contemplate its loss.

Taking a neglected pit bull for a pet grows more tempting once you imagine the injection that can put it to sleep for good. But the idea is even more tempting when you see the dog as a happy animal, off for a run on a hill made from other things people threw away.

As art, Johnstone’s work isn’t a gun to your head. She’s not trying to make you feel guilty. She just wants you to see the heart of the things we often overlook.

“They’re good dogs,” she said. “They just weren’t lucky.”

Sabbatical art project

At age 40, Johnstone brings a loaded resume to this project, which is taking shape on a yearlong sabbatical from Meredith. She has degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Rochester Institute of Technology, and she’s won an armload of awards.

Separate from this project, she has sent her Meredith students into shelters. Johnstone has also photographed animals before, during and after euthanasia – a project undertaken in a city she promised not to name.

It galled her that animals are considered property under the law and that the same branch of government that operates a landfill is placed in charge of an animal shelter. Her idea actually came at the suggestion of Wake County’s former environmental director, except that he wanted to bring dozens of dogs to the park; Johnstone settled on the idea of one at a time.

It isn’t journalism. Johnstone removes the dogs’ leashes from the pictures with the help of Photoshop. But her work strikes the same muckraking chord as it pries up floorboards to let in some light.

She started with Firenze, a pit-bull-mix male who got adopted right away. “I put my arm around him,” she said. “He wanted to have the wind in his fur.”

Next came Greyson, a pit bull who is still waiting for a home 13 months after his photo shoot. Then came Ali G., who just wasn’t adoptable. He was the first of the landfill dogs to go.

“I have a whole spreadsheet,” Johnstone said.

On Thursday, I followed her and a shelter volunteer up the half-mile trail, along with Wezzy, a brown-and-white pit bull who is officially 4 years old, but in actuality is probably older.

Ready for a close-up

On the way, I learned that Wezzy suffers from a condition known as “happy tail,” which means he wags his tail so hard that he smacks it raw on the walls inside his cage.

He has also lost fur on all four of his leg joints, which can happen when a dog lays on a concrete floor.

But he perked up like a dog starring in an ALPO commercial when Johnstone clipped on his leash; he was ready for his close-up at the top of a trash pile.

He’s back in his cage now. You could go see him today.

Shaffer: or 919-829-4818

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