I remember first being turned on to Mary Shannon Johnstone’s work by an instructor of mine back in 2010. I was photographing inside an old animal shelter in Denver that was about to move to a nice, new facility, and I had been passionate about companion animal overpopulation, adoption versus breeding, and the power of hard-to-look-at images for as long as I could remember. I saw Shannon’s project Breeding Ignorance, about euthanasia in animal shelters, and I was so deeply affected. The images were incredibly heartbreaking and at the same time very beautiful. I believed more people had to be exposed to work like this.

I was so excited to learn that Shannon would be presenting at the Living With Animals conference I attended in March (even more excited to learn that we would be meeting individually for me to review her work). In talking with and getting to know this wonderful artist, I learned of the struggles she faced in getting her work out into the world – how people viewed it as too gruesome, too difficult to face, too upsetting. With her more recent project, Landfill Dogs, Shannon has found an extremely successful solution. While the project continues to speak about the problem of homeless animals being euthanized, the pictures in Landfill Dogs are joyful and uplifting (so much so, in fact, that Shannon faces interpretation of her work on the complete opposite end of the spectrum – as “cute animal photography”), tender and emotional. I so applaud Shannon for pushing through the challenges and getting this work’s message seen and heard by the world. Landfill Dogs is a gorgeous hardcover book that can be purchased on the artist’s website.

From the artist’s statement: These are not cute pictures of dogs. These are dogs who have been homeless for at least two weeks, and now face euthanasia if they do not find a home. Each week I bring one dog from the county animal shelter and photograph him/her at Landfill Park, a former landfill converted into a public park.

The backdrop of Landfill Park is used for two reasons. First, the dogs will end up in a landfill if they do not find a home. They will be euthanized and their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash. Below the surface at Landfill Park there are more than 25,000 dogs buried. I think of this park as a burial ground. These photographs offer the last opportunity for these dogs to find homes. The second reason for the landfill location is because the county animal shelter falls under the same management as the landfill. This government structure reflects a societal value; homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. However, this landscape offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty. I hope the viewer also sees the beauty in these homeless, unloved creatures.

To date I have photographed 179 dogs from Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh. Of that group, 153 have been adopted or sent to rescue, 7 are still waiting, and 19 have been euthanized for various reasons.

Visit artist's site: shannonjohnstone.com