In the fall 2022 semester, Professor of Art Shannon Johnstone arranged for her students to take photos at the Blind Spot Animal Sanctuary. They were charged with taking photos that depict animals as subjects rather than objects.
“In art and photography, animals are most often used as symbols, metaphors, tools, labor, or stand-ins for something else,” said Johnstone. “My hope is that we can begin to change that by depicting animals as sentient beings who are worthy of moral consideration simply because they exist – just like humans.”
For Johnstone, the project is an opportunity for students to explore different vantage points and expose themselves to new ways of thinking, including ones that might feel uncomfortable initially. She sees this as a crucial aspect of a college education.
“I understand that some of my students come from farming backgrounds or may have religious reasons for the way they think, treat, and feel about animals,” said Johnstone. “But my hope is that students will try to make pictures through the lens of animals deserving our moral consideration, even if it is just for an afternoon. Then they can make an educated acceptance or rejection of the concept after having time to consider it.”
Johnstone has a national reputation for her social activism through photography. She met the founders of Blind Spot through volunteering at Wake County Animal Center. She then paid a visit to the Sanctuary and was impressed.
“I was blown away by how many animals they have helped and how each animal was treated with individuality and dignity,” said Johnstone. “I thought it would be a perfect fit for our ‘animal portrait’ project.”
Students were given a photographic directive of three different portraits they needed to make of each animal they photographed.
“These three different images involved changing camera settings, but more importantly, it required students to change their angle of view and respond to their subject and environment,” said Johnstone. “I was so excited to see students who had been relatively shy in class come to life on this field trip. I saw students taking photographic risks like lying on the ground and asking their peers to help compose an image.”
First-year student Lauren Shaw enjoyed the assignment.
“As a result of this trip, I learned that animals I was previously cautious around, such as pigs and chickens, are interesting creatures with individual personalities and qualities,” said Shaw. “I didn’t know pigs could be so much like dogs, but one wanted belly rubs, which I did not expect at all! It was such an amazing experience to capture the lives of animals we rarely see up close and personal, and I’m so grateful to both Professor Johnstone and Blind Spot for facilitating our visit.”
Johnstone noted the students’ photographs have also been helpful to Blind Spot. The Sanctuary shared the students’ images on its social media accounts, which helps with adoptions and donations for the non-profit organization.
“I hope this collaboration with Blind Spot and Meredith can continue,” said Johnstone. “I love it when my students can serve the community as conduits of goodwill. And as a photography professor, I am proud of the way the students challenged themselves. Both sections of Photography I made some incredible images.”
Photo Credit: Shannon Johnstone