When you think of a pit bull, what comes to mind? If you’re like many people, you might see an aggressive dog straining at the end of a leash, teeth gnashing, barking ferociously. That’s certainly the stereotype, and unfortunately this pervasive image has led to a veritable pit bull crisis, with more than 1,000,000 pit bulls being euthanized each year in the United States alone.
An active animal shelter volunteer, Sophie Gamand was skeptical about pit bulls at first, having been attacked by a dog (though not a pit bull) as a child. But as she spent more time with the dogs, she started to discover many had sweet natures, yet languished for months or even years in shelters because of the stigma against them. As a photographer, Gamand realized that the portrayal of these dogs nearly always featured aesthetics that reinforced the tough, violent preconceptions people have about them. Urban settings, harsh lighting, high contrast, sharp textures: these aesthetics unconsciously inform our sense of the dogs’ personalities. (Imagine if you were only ever photographed in stark lighting behind chain link fences. People might not think you were very nice either!)
If aesthetics can foster a bad impression, Gamand reasoned, they can also promote a good one. And so she crafted flower crowns for the animals and started photographing dogs awaiting adoption on pastel backgrounds with soft, ethereal lighting. The change is visceral. It’s hard to look at these dogs and think “Danger!” Which raises the question: Is the difference between man’s best friend and man-eating beast mainly an aesthetic one?
My stepfather brought home a pit bull when I was in middle school. He never neutered the dog, and didn’t train it well, and as a result it behaved in an unpredictable way that always terrified me. It never bit me, but it did bite others. And once it barked at me so viciously I was stuck standing on the dining room table until my grandmother was able to lure it away with a piece of cheese. Gamand writes that this is a big part of the problem with pit bulls — their reputation for aggressiveness attracts owners who want a “scary dog,” which leads to bad training and socialization which promote behaviors that reinforce the stereotype. In its later years, though, my stepfather’s dog mellowed. He became a loyal and sensitive companion to my grandmother, sitting on the end of her bed patiently and quietly as she was dying of cancer.
So my own experiences leave me conflicted. I still don’t know whether to believe the breed has innate aggressive tendencies or not, and I still wonder whether we should be breeding so many of the dogs, especially when there are so many sitting in shelters. But I love the premise of Gamand’s work: that portraying the dogs in a gentler light might give them a chance at being adopted by responsible, affectionate owners, which in turn might shift not just the stereotype but also the actual track record of the breed.
I’m curious to hear from the pit bull owners (or detractors) out there, as I know people are staunchly divided on this topic. How does Flower Power affect your feelings about these dogs?