Midtown Raleigh News

Mary Shannon Johnstone’s “Landfill Dogs” project helps animals at risk for euthanasia

Rose strikes a pose during her photo shoot with professional photographer Mary Shannon Johnstone, whose project 'Landfill Dogs' is being displayed at Designbox during First Friday.
Rose strikes a pose during her photo shoot with professional photographer Mary Shannon Johnstone, whose project 'Landfill Dogs' is being displayed at Designbox during First Friday. Mary Shannon Johnstone

Each week, photographer Mary Shannon Johnstone and a dog that is living at the Wake County animal shelter head to a local landfill-turned-park for a photo session.

They follow a trail that leads to one of county’s highest points, and then Johnstone gets to work, capturing portraits of each dog. Some jump and others spin, some cast their eyes to the sky and still others lie down in the grass and stare straight into the camera.

All of the dogs are at risk of being euthanized because of how long they’ve been at the shelter. Johnstone wants to change that.

By showcasing the dogs individually, she hopes someone will connect with each one and decide to bring him or her home.

“You really see their spirit and their personality,” she said. “I thought someone else would see that in them, too.”

The ongoing project is called “Landfill Dogs,” and a collection of Johnstone’s photographs will be on display at Designbox from July 5-26. The shows open this week for First Friday.

Johnstone, a professor at Meredith College, chose the North Wake Landfill Park as the backdrop for the photographs to make clear that the garbage is where euthanized animals end up. They’re treated as just another trash stream, she said. But, at the same time, the landfill has been turned into a park – a transformation from unappealing to inviting she hopes the dogs’ lives will mirror.

“That’s a really nice, hopeful message,” she said.

Johnstone, a regular volunteer at two local shelters, began the project last fall and intends to photograph one dog each week for 18 months. She also plans to track the adoption rate for the dogs to see how much of a difference the project makes.

Of the first 38 dogs in the series, only three have been euthanized, a rate far better than what’s typical at the shelter.

Johnstone said she doesn’t think that’s the shelter’s fault.

“I in no way blame them at all,” said Johnstone, who supports stricter spay and neuter laws. “We as a society created the problem.”

Johnstone, who got her start as a photographer when she received a camera in a Happy Meal, said that the draw of photography is its ability to show the viewer a perspective they may never have considered.

“You can really bring a person into a situation,” she said.

At the First Friday opening, small versions of hundreds of Johnstone’s photographs will be available in exchange for a $5 donation to the Wake shelter.

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