Contemporary photographer Martin Usborne is set to exhibit ‘The Silence of Dogs in Cars’ at our long-time client The Little Black Gallery 19th March – 27th April, 2013. We caught up with Martin ahead of the exhibition to discover more about the meaning behind this captivating series and his wider creative practice.
Q) ‘The Silence of Dogs in Cars’ examines the sometimes strange relationship between humans and other animals. Where did the inspiration for this series from?
A) I was once left in a car at a young age. I don't know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside a supermarket, probably for fifteen minutes only. The details don't matter. The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back. Around the same age I began to feel a deep affinity with animals - in particular their plight at the hands of humans. I saw a TV documentary that included footage of a dog being put in a plastic bag and being kicked. What appalled me most was that the dog could not speak back. Its muteness terrified me.
Q) Is the perceived hierarchical divide between humans and other animals something you feel strongly about in an emotional sense and how have you addressed this in your work?
A) I find it very painful. If you look at biology or evolution you see that humans and other animals exist on a continuum and yet we act as if humans are entirely separate. I suppose the glass of the car windows [in this series] represents that artificial divide. We are on the outside, the animal is shut away and silenced on the inside. But I think I’m also trying to get at a divide we make in ourselves– if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. We are cut off from parts of ourselves … this series is about trying to reconnect with the lost face inside each of us. For me it’s been uplifting, taking the pictures. I found the dogs weren’t deathly; they had expression and sometimes humour. Like I say in the book, there is life in the darkest places within us.
Q) This series began as a documentary project, however you eventually moved on to stage the scenes. Was this a practical decision and how do you feel it affected the work?
A) Yes. I did start it as a reportage project but after I found myself walking around supermarket carparks making barking noises to try and awaken sleeping dogs that were not actually there, I set up the shots. But I now realise that is the right thing. It’s very important that it’s lit and looks cinematic, dreamlike almost.
Q) The stillness of your subjects and indeed the title of this collection create an overriding ‘muteness’. Are you alluding to the fact that animals are often trapped without a voice and suffer at human hands as a result?
A) The images in this series explore that feeling, both in relation to myself and to animals in general. The dog in the car is a metaphor, not just for the way that animals (both domestic and wild) are so often silenced and controlled by humans but for the way that we so often silence and control the darker parts of ourselves: the fear and loneliness that we would rather keep locked away.
Q) Do you have any dogs of your own?
A) Yes, I have two miniature schnauzers - Moose and Bug. They are both a bit too cute and scruffy to feature in the series though.
Q) Can you tell us a little about your latest project ‘A Year To Help: How Many Animals Can 1 Man Save in 365 Days?’
A) Yes, I wanted to make sure I did something for animals rather than just taking pictures of them! The reason I take pictures of them is, after all, because I care about their moral welfare. I'm kind of travelling around the world with this rather naive but very heartfelt desire to help. I want to see how far one can get with that sort of drive. Can one make ANY difference?
Q) Do you have a piece which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you for emotional or sentimental reasons?
A) In the dogs in cars series? Yes, the image of Shep on the beach at dawn in the camper van. Partly because it took such a long time to get (3 days) and partly because I find it both lonely and beautiful. It has some real hope there. I want the series not just to be dark but also playful and at times with glimmers of hope.
Q) Do you use any unusual camera equipment or techniques in your creative process?
A) I shoot with all sorts of cameras but when you photograph dogs you also need cheese, salami, squeaky balls and unusually, a copy of Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U which I have found particularly useful in taming otherwise mental husky dogs.
Q) How do you like to relax outside of the studio?
A) By not taking pictures!
Q) Do you think framing plays an important role in the final presentation of your work?
A) Absolutely and totally. I'm fairly trad about this. I like classic wood fames, very simple with a spacer to set the image back from the glass. The job of the frame is to complement and support the work, never take over from it. A frame is a beautiful thing which gives a piece of work its rightful stature.