Through the Lens – Sherry Stinson

April 23, 2013  

Sherry Stinson / TylerDog Photography

Interview by Kaycie Goddard

Why did you first get into photography? Is it your main job?
I started taking pictures as a kid. In fact, I asked my Mom, “Why am I not in any of the photos when I was little?” She said, “Because you wanted to take them!” When I turned 18, my Dad said, “You might end up making some money doing this…” and bought me my first camera, a Pentax K1000. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I do photography in conjunction with my other business, Tyler Creative (in Bartlesville, Oklahoma), which is graphic design. I’ve been a designer as long as a photographer, around 30-plus years.

What other work do you enjoy as a photographer?
Honestly, I enjoy pets more than any other specialty. I do families, seniors, and occasionally weddings, but mostly focus on pets and their families.

What drew you to volunteering your services for animals?
A former student who happened to work at the local shelter called one day and said, “Do you have any photography students who would like to take photos at the shelter?” I responded that I would and it went from there. I helped that particular shelter for over three years. During that time, I was told that adoptions soared. They had people coming in from other states asking for the animals by name after seeing their professional photos posted.

I can’t think of any other type of volunteer work I would rather do. I mean, I get paid in kisses and wiggles. What a paycheck! And knowing I’m helping an animal have a second chance at life – well, it just doesn’t get any better.

How long have you been volunteering?
Around five years.

Is there a particular shelter where you spend most of your volunteer time? How many shelters and rescues have you worked with since you started volunteering?
I’m currently helping the City of Tulsa Animal Welfare in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Last year they took in over 12,000 animals and have a 62% euthanasia rate. We started taking photos on New Year’s Eve and are 10 weeks into the project. So far, their euthanasia rate has dropped to 45% in both January and February, and it’s the lowest it’s been in five years. We’re making progress. I’d like to see it drop even further, but it takes time. I also help Legacy of Hope Dog Rescue, a Tulsa-based rescue that specializes in pit bulls, and Dr. Sarah Gordon. She’s a veterinarian who also rescues many pit bulls, as well as other animals. I’ve worked with over 20 different rescues and shelters over the years.

What is your favorite part of volunteering your photography skills?
Other than knowing I’m helping them get a second chance, it has to be the opportunity to love on each and every one of the animals. We don’t just take their photo, but we try to spend a few minutes with each one, loving on them, petting them. I know not each animal I photograph will be there when I return the next week; some will be euthanized due to space. So, if I can spend a few minutes letting them know they are loved and cherished, I’ll do it. And again, kisses and wiggles are great rewards for doing what I do.

Do you think doing this has changed your life?
It has. It’s made me more aware of helping those who can’t speak for themselves. Before I started helping, I had never been to our local shelter. It’s sad to admit that, I know. I never really gave it a second thought. Now I’m much more aware of the desperate situation many cities are facing with the pet overpopulation crisis, especially when it relates to pit bulls. To find out so many shelters simply euthanize them without a second thought crushes my soul. It’s something I’ve felt the call to help change.

And I feel my photography has been able to do it to a degree. It’s helped change the perception of shelter dogs and cats as damaged, or dirty or stinky animals who wouldn’t do well in a home. I look at shelter dogs and cats as survivors. They’ve been discarded, for whatever reasons, and yet it doesn’t daunt their spirits one whit. Some are broken, some are scared. Some have stories that will break your heart. But animals don’t focus on that. They just want a chance. They’re full of love and joy, ready to give it to the next person worthy of it. I think my photos help give them a chance.

What sort of feedback have you received about your animal photos?
It’s been great. The shelters and rescues I’ve helped said they’ve brought increased adoptions, better awareness, and more volunteers. For personal clients, it’s been incredibly rewarding. One gentleman brought his nine-year-old Boxer in for a session. She was dying and he was putting her down the next day to save her from suffering. We both cried during the session, and when he came to see the proofs, we cried again. His gratitude was overwhelming, knowing we had captured his Roxie in her best light. Those are memories neither of us will forget and her photos will be lasting proof of her loving legacy.

Do you work with other photographers in your efforts?
I’ve had interest from other photographers wanting to learn how to do what I’m doing. In response to that, I intend to start holding some hands-on workshops in an effort to recruit more photographers to help at other shelters. I travel all over Oklahoma and there’s just not enough time in the day to do it all. If I had the financial means, I honestly could do this every day of the week because the requests are that great. I help where I can, when I can, and have yet to turn down a request, no matter where it is. The farthest one I’ve helped was over four hours away, but all the animals we photographed found homes, so that made it worthwhile.

I’m also a member of HeARTs Speak, an international group of artists working to unite the individual efforts of animal arts and animal rescues into collective action for social change.

What would you say to other aspiring photographers to help them get involved with rescues in their area?
Find a professional photographer and intern under them for awhile. Learn the ropes. Visit with dog trainers and learn the do’s and don’t’s about animal behavior. Do your homework about the shelter. Remember you are there to help them, not build your portfolio. Not every photographer is a pet photographer. It takes a special person to understand the dog or cat; is it stressed, how is it reacting, what the body language is telling you. I am all about safety during my shoots. I take into consideration the dog/cat has been in the kennel 24/7 for days and weeks on end. A kennel is a stressful environment, so if the animal is exhibiting signs of stress, the first thing I do is quiet the room and let the animal calm down. Sometimes we’ll walk it for a while and let it de-stress. The animal’s stress level and safety is paramount, as is the safety of my assistants. The last thing I want is a dog to bite from fear or stress. That’s a death sentence to most shelter dogs, so I teach all my assistants what to look for, how to be safe, and how to calm the animal before we take its photo. Aspiring photographers would do well following those guidelines.

Where can people find you online?

Website: tylerdog.com
Facebook: facebook.com/TylerDogPhotography and facebook.com/sherrystinson
Twitter: @tylerdogphotos
Flickr: flickr.com/photos/tylercreative
Pinterest: pinterest.com/tylerdog
YouTube: youtube.com/TylerDogPhotography

What is one of your favorite pit bull stories?
Joey is probably one of my favorite stories. He was a young pit bull at the City of Tulsa Animal Welfare shelter. His name there was José, but after spending five seconds with him, he reminded me of Joey from Friends: happy-go-lucky, goofy, and just a big ham! On an energy level of 1-10, he was a 20! My handler couldn’t get him to calm down for anything. I’d walk over, take the lead, and he’d immediately sit and look at me like, “Okay, what would you like me to do!” I’d hand the leash back to my handler and he’d spring back into action! We spent 20 minutes trying to get the shot, to no avail. I didn’t have someone there with me that day who could pick up the camera to take the shot, or I would have handled and let them shoot. Finally, I walked over, took the leash, pointed my finger at him and said, “All right, Joey. We need your photo, so you must sit still for a second and let me get it!” I’m sure all he heard was “Blah, blah, Joey, blah, blah, blah…” but lo and behold, I picked up the camera, he sat, and we got some great shots. He was also adopted just a week later from the photos! He’s one of my favorites, simply because of how lovable and sweet he was.

Of course, my favorite story is about my Xena. She was eating road-kill on a busy street in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. I whistled and she hopped in my car like she always belonged. Underweight by at least 15 pounds and covered in cuts and scars, I spent a couple months trying to find her a home, with no luck. Finally, realizing she wasn’t doing well without a family (she was at my vet, in a large indoor/outdoor pen), I brought her home. For the first month, she and my other girls hated each other (my other girls were actually the problem, not Xena). It took a lot of training, time, and proper introductions, but now she and my other girls all sleep together on the bed. So I have a happy family comprised of Katie the Doberman Pinscher, Xena the Pit Bull, Maggie the Lab/Rottie, and Jazzy the Amazing Wiener (she’s all of 8 pounds).

All photos courtesy of Sherry Stinson, TylerDog Photography.

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