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Member Focus – Maria Michael ASWPP Associateship Panel – Pets

Statement of Intent

I have been a specialist pet photographer for over 10 years, with the majority of my clients being dog owners and, more recently, horse owners.

In 2008 I was forced to retire on medical grounds from my career as a Senior Social Worker, after an assault at work left me with a permanent, yet invisible, disability.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition of widespread pain and profound fatigue. It also causes, along with many other things, cognitive disfunction, memory issues and can be very debilitating.

By the time I retired, the fatigue was so overwhelming, I found it almost impossible to get out of bed each day. And once I did, the pains caused severe issues with my mobility. I also suffered with sudden, unexpected drops in my blood pressure and would faint or collapse.
My husband and I, along with our two young children, two dogs and cat, had not long moved into our dream home. And then suddenly, our lives changed forever.

I knew in order to push through the pain and fatigue, I needed a guilt trip. So, against all logic, we took on a new puppy, Harvey.

For just over 10 years Harvey was my motivation to get out of bed, to push through the fatigue and all the pains. He not only gave me the guilt trip I needed, but he made me feel safe. He even wore a special GPS alert collar that I could activate if I started to feel unwell.

I felt inspired to learn more about canine behaviour and psychology, not only to help me train Harvey, but also to work on the behavioural issues our older dogs had.

The bond Harvey and I shared was so powerful, and it was the overwhelming driving force behind my ability to rebuild my life. Detheo Photography was created in honour of the that bond. Sadly, Harvey passed away in my arms, in September 2019. But his legacy lives on.

My Panel And The Ethos The Images Are Built On I have dedicated more than 10 years to learning about the behaviour and psychology of dogs, and horses in order to create a service that is not only unique, but more importantly, always places their welfare at the forefront of every session.

From the beginning, my mission was to create images that chaptered the very essence of the animals I photographed. Images that my clients could connect to emotionally. For this reason, the majority of my specialist pet photography sessions are held out on location, in places of personal significance to my clients.

However, a vital part of my business is the way I market to new clients. I attend approximately seven large events a year where I set up two marquees side by side. One side is used as a display area, where I have many examples of my work in large frames, and the other is set up as a studio. During a typical show, I can photograph up to 70 dogs.

All of the images used for this panel have been captured whilst at these shows, where I have on average, 1–2 minutes to get ‘the shot’.

A studio setting is a strange and stressful place for most dogs. However, at shows you also have the added issue of the canvas moving with the wind, lots of commotion and loud noises, strange smells, and many other dogs wandering past. All of these cause a huge impact, potentially making the dogs even more stressed and unsettled.

The majority of the dogs I photograph are not highly trained. In fact, many are rescues, and very excitable, nervous or reactive. And this adds another dimension to the complexity of working with those dogs, especially at shows.

This is very much the case for one dog in this panel (Image No 10 in the layout). She was so violently abused that when I met her she wore three collars, a harness and a basket muzzle. Her owners explained that she was very reactive, especially to women and they were too afraid to even approach my stand.

Within a few minutes she was laying by my feet after I had managed to persuade them to remove all but one collar and I was able capture her photograph. They cried when they saw it, explaining how grateful they felt that someone took the time and had the skills to capture her true, gentle personality.

A vital factor I would like the judges to bear in mind, is that every day our subconscious is taking in and storing information. That information is often reactivated from a stimulus. This is exactly what happens with déjà vu (the feeling that one has lived through the present situation before. It literally is translated to ‘already seen’).

Therefore, for me, it is vital that I capture an image that a client can instantly connect to; one that they immediately identify as ‘their dog’. A stunning portrait is not good enough, as it has no emotional connection for them. And if they feel their dog does not usually sit like that or look that way, the impact is lost and I have failed to achieve my mission.

The perfect example of this is in Image No 02. I was setting up for a show and this lovely little dog was with a rescue group setting up their stand close by. I first noticed her when she scooted over with her wheelchair to say hello. I discovered that she was a rescue from Greece and was usually quite shy towards new people. It seemed she was drawn to me for some reason. So when I spoke to her in Greek (my first language as a Greek Cypriot) she was quite excited.

Her story was that she had been left for dead on the side of the road and, as a result of her injuries, her rear legs were completely paralysed. You can see the evidence from the scaring of her legs and the fact that the muscles have wasted away.

Some photographers may have been inclined to pose her to hide her disability. This is something I do not do with animals and I did not want to disguise the fact that she was paralysed. Her disability is part of who she is, just I guess as it is for me. The fact that she sits unaided in this portrait, is testament to her determination and strength. But you only need to look at her face and it is easy to see her vulnerability and shyness.

Another example is in Image No 14 where the dog is elderly. It is very common for the front legs to spread out further like this. The muscles are weaker and the dog finds it harder to hold themselves up.

Image No 5 is a family of French Bulldogs. Their owner is the breeder and the little lady in the centre was the cheekiest of them all. But she was the runt of the litter and was born with a deformity to her rear legs. Yet this never stops her being the centre of attention.

My Aspirations
The way I work with animals (dogs and horses mainly) is quite unique and I am very passionate about helping to promote greater respect for this genre. My reputation for working with nervous or reactive animals has seen my client base grow rapidly over the years.

I thank you for taking the time to read this statement and hope you enjoy the images within this panel as much as I have, creating them.

Please take a look at Maria’s ASWPP panel video here

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