Art, Shelter Dogs, Public Graves, and Renewal: an interview with photographer Shannon Johnstone

by Eric S. Greene

Shannon Johnstone, Karsten #87239 (detail). © 2013. Part of the Landfill Dogs project. Adopted.

Here’s a treat for all those who care deeply about dogs and civic engagement: photographer Shannon Johnstone’s original, poetic photographic essay, Landfill Dogs. Published in 2013 to critical acclaim (we included one of her photographs in our developing Photography Gallery), this series of photographic portraits deserves continued attention from those who love animals and those organizations committed to their support – especially during this season of reflection and gift-giving (scroll to the end of the article for purchase information).

The Green Pet-Burial Society addresses the status of animals in society in life as well as death, our (dis)connections with the Earth, ways in which we honor those who have passed, and how only a relative few animals are remembered and mourned.

Johnstone highlights these themes among dogs whose unwanted-ness marks them for an untimely death. She focuses her lens on the life, joys, and fates of individual dogs within a society that – in the absence of caring families and nurturing homes – discards them.

In an unexpected turn, Johnstone takes dogs, whose future at a local animal shelter is uncertain, to a park created upon a landfill, liberating them for a few hours of fresh air and play. Yet this poignant outing above ground is juxtaposed with the reality of what lies below: the landfill contains the remains of thousands of other dogs prematurely put to death. In this deceptively natural setting, she leads us to contemplate the fates of captive animals who lack human companionship; the stark reality of their unwantedness (which serves as the raison de ne pas être vis-à-vis lethal injection); the meanings we give to death and life; the inequities inflicted upon forgotten dogs; and entire systems of captivity, domestication, and control over animals’ lives and bodies. As importantly, she documents the remarkable reactions the dogs have during a sublime moment of freedom.

We are grateful to Johnstone for sharing her thoughts and process through an email interview with the Green Pet-Burial Society; edited excerpts of which are shared below.

Greene: The concept for Landfill Dogs is profound and the photographs are glorious. How did this series come about?

Johnstone: I’ve been photographing the animals at my local animal shelter for a few years; standard head shots that were a step above typical impoundment photos. The head of the county’s environmental services (who oversaw the animal shelter) approached me about a new public park that just opened up called Landfill Park. He was looking for unique ways to market the shelter animals, and thought the park would be a good backdrop since it was the second highest point in the county.

Shannon Johnstone, Gunther #99167. © 2014. Part of the Landfill Dogs project. Adopted.

With Landfill Dogs, I wanted to make a connection between the dogs and the landfill. Most people don’t realize that the animal shelter and the landfill are managed by the same government division. The thinking behind this is that, since pets are considered property by law, when you want to discard your ‘property,’ the government provides a place for it. In Wake County, NC (my adoptive home and the setting for Landfill Dogs), the carcasses of so many animals from the shelter are buried in that landfill.

Landfill Park was an active landfill from 1996–2008. During this time, Wake County Animal Center (WCAC) brought its euthanized animals here. An estimated 25,666 dogs are buried in Landfill Park. If each of these dogs weighed an average of 50 pounds – almost 700 tons of dog bodies are buried within this hill, among 4.8 million tons of trash (keep in mind, this number does not include cats or other animals). To me, Landfill Park is a burial ground.

But this project is not about the poor dogs buried in the landfill; it’s about all those still living, who are most at risk for euthanasia at the shelter. I want to honor those dogs in this place, simultaneously sad and beautiful. There is sadness below the surface; it seeps out through the methane pipes. The sadness smells like sulfur. It is an odor juxtaposed to the pastoral beauty above.

The landfill rises 190 feet and covers 43 acres. As the second-highest point in Wake County, when standing on its peak, you can see for miles in all directions. Atop its multitude of tragedy, grass and wildflowers grow, birds fly, and deer roam. It is breathtakingly beautiful. This is where I honor the shelter’s dogs who are most at risk. Through photography I want to present their spirits as alive, happy, and running free – to give them one last chance to find a home before they, too, end up buried in a landfill amidst broken dishes and broken promises.

Just as Landfill Park transformed a mound of trash into beauty, I want to make something beautiful from the sadness in these dogs’ eyes. I want to feel free with them, to dream with them on top of the hill, to look out at our country and make a wish; even if only for an hour.

What does a landfill represent to you?

The landfill is a grave covering things no longer wanted or needed. It breaks my heart that our pets are thrown in with this waste. It wasn’t sickness or old age that killed them – they were abandoned or surrendered, and the government had nowhere else to put them. Unlike graveyards, there is no marker or public acknowledgement for these 25,666 former pets. They are invisible, and quite literally buried.

I was also interested in what happens to this landfill and burial ground once the animals’ carcasses start decomposing. There are a few things that make a landfill different from a conventional graveyard, and one is the high concentration of lethally injected animals in one area. I found one study on the euthanasia drug’s (sodium pentobarbital) longevity in composting decomposing horses (from Cornell Waste Management Institution). This was also addressed as a warning from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Both documents reveal that sodium pentobarbital remains active as the body decomposes, and it was found in the surrounding soil as well.

I spoke with the North Carolina Hazardous Waste Division about sodium pentobarbital in the landfill, and they replied that it wasn’t on their radar as hazardous waste, which didn’t mean that it wasn’t a problem, it’s just that they weren’t looking into it and didn’t have it labelled as hazardous after being injected into an animal.

Considering what was hidden from sight and mind, what was it like to photograph these dogs at this site?

It was important to me to photograph at different times of the day and throughout the year, in all seasons. I photographed in the rain, snow, fog, sunshine and mixed clouds, at sunset, sunrise, and from dawn to dusk. The only weather phenomenon that I have not yet photographed (but still desperately want to capture) is a rainbow. 

When I conceived of Landfill Dogs, I envisioned the viewer needing to see these photographs as a group in order to feel the weight of the project. I wanted people to see the landscape change and transform, while the stream of dogs remained constant. However, as the project began to develop, people shared the images they liked best, and in the process, individual dogs were getting new homes. The subsequent adoptions from Landfill Dogs is one of the most beautiful aspects of this project.

Clearly, these photographs have generated strong feelings among those who have seen them. What was it like for you to stand on such sacred ground?

Shannon Johnstone, Buck #104912. © 2014. Part of the Landfill Dogs project. Adopted.

I never took my shoes off, but I did lie on the ground with the dogs and try to look around from their perspective. They were remarkably quiet up there. For dogs in the shelter, hearing is the sense that’s engaged the most. The shelter is incredibly loud; barks and cries from the animals echo against the cement walls. It is deafening. There are few windows, and the ones that are there are about 15 feet high. The dogs, confined to separate kennels, lie on the cement floor. Toys are only allowed under supervision (for fear of choking). Every sense is deprived except hearing – which unfortunately is amplified.

Once we get to Landfill Park it’s the opposite; it is very quiet. The sun shines on their backs, and wind blows through their fur. Their paws touch all kinds of textures, from rocks to gravel to grass. The smell of the landfill mixed with the growing vegetation is palpable even to someone like me who has just a fraction of their olfactive capacity. Additionally, the dogs get to eat different treats, play with toys, and look around in every direction. My favorite part is watching a dog’s nostrils twitch and flare as they look around in amazement.

Your photographs reveal each dog’s unique individuality. Had you also considered photographing them in groups?

Shannon Johnstone, Jemma. © 2012. Part of the Landfill Dogs project.

When visiting the animal shelter, I often feel overwhelmed by the number of kennels in one room. I chose to photograph one dog at a time so that I’d be better equipped to emotionally and physically handle the needs of each; I wanted each dog to feel special. I wanted their photo shoot to be their best day. I wanted each one to soak up all the attention, affection, and treats, and each day to be all about them.

These photographs do not reflect the dogs’ reality. They spend 23+ hours per day alone in a kennel, and are lucky to receive a 10-minute walk. In the editing process, I removed the handler, leash, and collar so that it looks as if the dog is running free. This is how I wanted to show the dogs – individually wishing and dreaming without restraint. Consider Paul Slovic’s research demonstrating that, when we think we can have an impact on just one person in need, we are much more inclined to help.

Using Photoshop in some of these portraits does add to the visual drama, and gives them that dreamlike quality which contrasts with the deprivation of the kennel.

There is a lot of value in documenting life exactly as it is. Previous to Landfill Dogs, I worked on a project called Breeding Ignorance which illustrated the daily life of shelter animals, and depicted the lethal injection process. I thought if people could see what goes on behind closed doors they would be motivated to spay and neuter, and be responsible “pet owners.” But that’s not what happened and the response was troubling. In the photographs, I blocked out the identity of the shelter workers and the shelter itself thinking this would stop any backlash. But the images were shared without my knowledge or consent via social media, and used in various smear campaigns against so-called “kill shelters” without addressing the causes of pet overpopulation or the unwantedness of abandoned animals.

Shannon Johnstone, Mistletoe. © 2012. Part of the Landfill Dogs project.

This is a good time to talk about “open admission shelters.” An open-admission shelter means that the animal shelter must accept every animal who comes through the door. They cannot turn an animal away, even if the shelter is at full capacity. Typically these shelters are run by local governments and are sometimes referred to as “kill shelters.”

Yet “no-kill shelters” are often privately run and typically are not open admission. A private shelter can refuse an animal if the shelter is full or if the animal is sick or otherwise un-adoptable. The real difference between “kill” and “no-kill” shelters is not whether animals are euthanized, but who has to do it. Another thing that frustrates me to no end is when people say that animal overpopulation is a myth. In 2012, the year Landfill Dogs commenced, WCAC received an average of 39 new animals EVERY day that year.

Use of the word ‘euthanasia’ is another part of that complexity. I tend to reserve the term for sick or injured animals whose condition will only worsen or who will suffer interminably. At the same time, I recognize that terms like ‘killing,’ when applied to shelter dogs, might serve as an indictment against shelter workers, even though the responsibility is ultimately upon us all. You use the term ‘euthanasia’ in this context, why?

I understand your position, but truly believe that there are fates worse than death. Until we curb reckless breeding (and many states have, since my project with Landfill Dogs started!), euthanasia will be used as a method for population control. Landfill Dogs has taught me that the problem is not the animal shelter’s handling of the animals, but society’s commodification of non-human companions. There are too many animals and not enough homes. I understand the no-kill movement and appreciate their commitment to working with discarded shelter pets, but I am at odds with who they blame for the problem. 

What do you hope people think of when seeing your photographs?

For Landfill Dogs, I was aware that the photographs could be taken out of context again – but even if the message was lost, these photographs might still help dogs. I wanted to make photographs that were magical. I wanted the viewer to feel empowered, to get involved and share these images. In the process, each dog who was not getting enough attention before would suddenly be shared all over the country.

And those reactions…

The response to Landfill Dogs has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m often asked “Why this particular shelter?”, and “Why don’t you adopt these dogs?” The Wake County Animal Center is the shelter in my own community, and I feel a commitment to this shelter and to these dogs (and cats and other critters).

I do bond with the dogs when photographing them. It’s hard to look them in the eye, watch them frolic and enjoy themselves, and not fall in love with them. But there are too many – 39 new animals every day; we all need to open our homes to them (I probably would have adopted about 10 of these dogs but my husband and I already had four rescue dogs and two cats).

Landfill Dogs is a plea for life, yet there’s the subtext of death. How do you see this project reckoning with the death of animals in our society and their bodies’ final end?

For me, the saddest part about the animals buried in Landfill Park is not the unmarked graves, but rather the classification of pets as property. This legal designation is a death sentence to all kinds of animals, from farm animals to companion animals.

To read more about Landfill Dogs and Johnstone’s other projects, and to purchase one of the remaining 50 copies of Landfill Dogs, visit https://www.shannonjohnstone.com/proj/landfilldogs/.

Shannon Johnstone, Lady Bell. © 2012. Part of the Landfill Dogs project.

Copyright © 2021 by Family Spirals®. All rights reserved. The Green Pet-Burial Society is hosted by Family Spirals®.

Eric S. Greene is the founder of the Green Pet-Burial Society and Family Spirals®. All photos are presented with permission by the artist.

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