Photographer Travis Patenaude On How Dogs Saved His Life

*Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide*

Photographer Travis Patenaude joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about his incredible work with dogs.

When was the first time you remember picking up a camera? 

I purchased my first DSLR (Canon Rebel T5i with Kit lenes) in August 2014. I purchased the camera with the sole purpose of learning photography to tell the story of the hunting dogs of Spain, or at least trying to and hoping I can get actual photographers to help tell their story.  

My idea behind this was trying to find a way to raise awareness to the most people as quickly as possible. I thought about when a dog is lost, you want to put up flyers as quickly as possible to get as many eyes searching for the dog as you can. I wanted to try and get other photographers to photograph Galgos or Podencos as most of their followers are animal lovers also. I spent as much time as I could learning photography to improve my photography and become a better storyteller with my images. The more I learned about photography, the more I fell in love with it.

And when did you begin taking photos of dogs?  

My wife and I started an adoption group for Galgos here in Chicago, IL. I needed to take photos to help the dogs find their forever homes. I played with different types of photos with the dogs and continued learning on how to make the photos better. Simple things like watching the background for distractions, keeping the eyes in focus, how aperture effects the image.  I then started to go to workshops and got to attend a dog photography retreat in Barcelona, Spain, with three of the top pet photographers. This is where I started to believe I could become a good photographer and bring light to the hunting dogs of Spain through photos.

You are clearly passionate about dogs and their well-being. What is your connection to dogs and what do they mean to you?

I have had dogs my whole life, but it was not until my wife and I adopted our first Greyhound in 2001 that I truly connected with a dog. After adopting our first greyhound, my wife and I started to volunteer for the greyhound group doing kennel work, fostering, adoption rep and dealing with the dogs paperwork. After 10 years we learned about the plight of the Galgos, and decided to try and adopt a Galgo.  This is where the universe stepped in and brought us a scared white Galgo who would end up saving my life.  

In October of 2012, I was dealing with a very dark depression and came very close to hanging myself in my garage. A week later we adopted Leena, who was just brought into Chicago and looking for a home. She was rescued by a volunteer in Barcelona after her hunter no longer needed her and was going to hang her in a tree as the tradition for the hunters in Spain. The irony was not lost on me.  

I spent months working with her to help her learn to trust people again. This helped me forget about my depressions as I was so focused on her. We tried to teach her how to be confident, but she made us more confident to talk to people about her and her story. We taught her how to step out of her comfort zone, but because of her we started a new adoption group to transport dogs from Spain. We have never been to Spain, did not know anyone in Spain and could not speak Spanish but were determined to help find homes for these dogs. Most importantly, she truly brought out empathy in me.  

Leena passed away from cancer in April of 2015, she was only with us for 3 short years, but her impact on our lives was enormous and life changing. I now try to repay Leena for saving my life, by trying to share her story and the plight of the hunting dogs of Spain with everyone I can. My goal is to end hunting with dogs in Spain.

One of the reasons I connected to your work was that my first dog was a Lurcher from a rescue home. She looked similar to many of the dogs you photograph, and your work stirs wonderful memories of her – thank you for that. Why are you drawn to rescue dogs and the Galgos breed in particular? 

I’m so drawn to the Galgos because how forgiving they are. They have suffered so much abuse but just want to be loved. I try to show these dogs how I see them through my eyes. I try to capture their personality and evoke empathy in the viewer for the dog(s).  

How do you ensure the dogs are comfortable and natural while photographing them? 

When a dog comes into my studio (Garage), I allow the dog to check out the lights, camera, and studio and wait for them to tell me they are ready. Depending on the dog, I may have the owner take them back outside and let them relax outside for a little bit and then bring them back into the studio.  

The second time coming into the studio helps them relax as it now a little more familiar to them. I will also test them with the lights using positive reinforcement. I will have the owner give the dog a couple treats, and after a couple treats, I will trigger the flash and have owner give a treat at the same time. Based on the dogs reaction with determine if the dog needs more time or is ready to start shooting. 

What is the secret to capturing the character of a dog through your photography?

I think the most important part of capturing the character of a dog is being in the moment with the dog. Having a connection with the dog, and being able to see the subtitle emotions in the dog’s face, and most importantly knowing when the dog is becoming stressed or uncomfortable and stopping the shoot at that point.  

One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started to learn photography was: “Shoot what your passionate about, and it will show through in your images.”  

You’ve obviously photographed and visited lots of dogs from different backgrounds. What’s the most striking experience you’ve had with a dog?  

I have to say I have been fortunate enough to have several experiences to remind me that the universe will give you the things you need when you need it. One of my favorite two images are of a Galgo named Calinda.  When I photographed her as my foster dog, she was very thing, and submissive. I captured a photo of her that told her story of fear, and the response I got from the photo told me I was on the right direction for telling her story.  

A year later I got to photograph her again when her family brought her to a hotel, I was staying at for a photography conference. The photo I took was a completely different dog, one now of confidence, and happy. It was great to show the difference one year of love and a stable home did for her.

What impact do you hope your photography and work has?  

I hope it sparks a conversation and empathy for these dogs. The viewer wants to learn more about the hunting dogs of Spain and shares their story with their friends. I hope it changes the perception of these dogs in Spain, showing their elegance, beauty, and love, and no longer considered a trash dog in Spain.

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects or work you’d like to tell us about? 

I recently got to travel back to Spain and ten days living in a shelter with 500 plus dogs. It has been two years since I was able to spend time at the shelter due to the pandemic. I was able to photograph the recovery of several of the extreme cases the shelter had to rescue in the past year.  

I would love to do a gallery showing of my images and introduce more people to these dogs and their plight.

Check out more of Travis’ work

Check out Travis’ Instagram

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