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Woman Loans Talent to Homeless Pets

Learn how professional photographer Karen Lawson uses her skills to help homeless pets get adopted.

Over the last week or so, you may have noticed that the quality of the Patch “Pet of the Day” photos has increased dramatically. I wish I could take credit for this, but these beautiful pictures of our local dogs were taken by a local professional photographer, Karen Lawson.  

I often get emails from people asking about our featured pets, and about a month ago, one of those emails came from Lawson. She told me that she goes to the at least once a week and photographs some of the animals who are in need of adoption. When I saw her work, I was in awe. Lawson manages to take even the most homely looking dog and make it look like the most gorgeous animal on earth. She captures the animals in such a way that you’d never know they are not someone’s treasured pet. Many people believe that quality photos are one of the keys to getting shelter dogs and cats adopted, and that is something Lawson and other local volunteers, are currently working to do for Douglas County's homeless pets.

I’ve gotten to know Lawson over the past few weeks, and I can assure you her heart is as big as her talent. She did not hesitate to offer to help me with pictures for our “Pets of the Day” this week when she learned that I had so much on my plate. Last week, when a rescue group in north Georgia offered to take some of our shelter dogs if someone could transport them, Lawson stopped everything she was doing to pitch in and help.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Lawson about how she came to start photographing our local dogs, and I even learned which famous designer has one of her photos on his desk. Here’s what she had to say: 

Douglasville Patch:  How did you get into photography?

Karen Lawson:  I've been taking pictures since I was very little, but I really started taking an interest in technique around 1992 when the company where I worked held a photography contest, and I entered and won. I was hooked. My husband already knew a lot about it and he began to teach me about aperture, depth of field, etc. He bought me a Canon AE1 film camera for Christmas. I later I took darkroom classes and started developing my black and white shots. It all snowballed from there.

Douglasville Patch: How did you get started photographing shelter dogs?  

Karen Lawson: For a while I had contemplated going to the shelter to walk the dogs and play with the cats, give them some exercise, hugs, and get them out of their cages. I'm ashamed to say that I just couldn't bring myself to do it, because I knew about the high weekly euthanization rate, and I just couldn't look those babies in the face and wonder if they were next. I knew it would give me nightmares.

But I happened to meet Diana Memmolo who works with our local Humane Society and was really impressed with her. She does so much for homeless and soon to be homeless animals. When she asked for volunteers to go to a local school and help to introduce small children to pets, I went and brought my camera. Cheryl McAuliffe was there that day, brought her cat, and gave a wonderful presentation to the children who hung onto her every word. She was amazing! I knew I wanted to get to know her better, and talked with her after the presentation. Since I had taken pictures, she asked if I would be willing to volunteer to take photos of the shelter dogs in an effort to get more pictures out in front of the public and increase the adoption rate. I agreed, even though I was secretly nervous about how I would react when I got there. There are already two people who are [also] doing photos up there. Wendy Steed photographs the dogs and works with rescues to pull from our shelter. She takes great pictures and works so hard coordinating the rescues. I want to be more like her when I grow up. Since she works full time and new dogs are coming in daily, she needed some help to get more photos out there. takes all of the cat pictures, she works very hard and does a great job. 

Douglasville Patch: Is this your first time photographing animals or is this something you've always done?

Karen Lawson: My first “customer,” back in 1999 or so, was a beautiful dog named Bella and her lovely human, Leesa. I've been photographing dogs and cats (and even a llama here and there) ever since. Leesa is still my customer today even though Bella recently crossed the “rainbow bridge.” I volunteered for quite a while, photographing rescue dogs and cats for the Briarcliff Animal Foundation. I took the photos and made them into goofy personal ad-type posters and made banners for them as well. Many pets were adopted when people laughed at the poster, then wanted to know more about the animal on it. Marketing really does help.  Minolo Blahnik even has one of those photos on his desk.

Douglasville Patch: You do such a great job of capturing dogs interacting with other people and making them look like good pet material. What's your secret? 

Karen Lawson: Thanks. It’s my belief that if you want the photo to convey the dog's personality, you can't just walk up to him or her and start snapping.  I like to walk him for a bit, let him explore and get his basic needs out of the way so he can focus on me.

Next, I'll sit on the ground and spend a few minutes getting to know him and a feel for his personality. They usually end up climbing into my lap and snuggling with me or playing. I don't smell so good when I leave. I love to take an animal-loving friend with me to help hold the leash and interact with the pup too. My good friend, Claire Foley, goes with me sometimes, and occasionally, my husband, Eddie. They are both amazing with animals and the dogs love them. It's at that point where the dog begins to realize that my big camera is not a monster, that they relax and ignore it long enough for me to get some good shots and capture their little personalities. The best shots I have are the ones where they are hugging and kissing my helper or doing a trick for them or playing on the ground. I swear, in some of the shots, it looks like the dog is laughing. When I go home with shots like those, I spend most of my editing sessions with a big grin on my face or laughing out loud. Unfortunately, I don't get always those kinds of shots when I don't have someone helping me. I just met two high school girls who volunteer up there. They are great with the dogs, and I'm excited to work with them further. 

Douglasville Patch: Do you think having good pictures of dogs helps get them adopted?  

Karen Lawson:  Absolutely! A good close-up of their face with their eyes in sharp focus, and one that showcases their cute or quirky antics can really help someone envision having that dog in their lives.

Douglasville Patch: Do you have a message for anyone considering adopting from our Douglas County shelter?  

Karen Lawson: Many times there are dogs and cats at the shelter who would make a wonderful family member, but no one even gives them a second glance because they may be cowering in the back of their cage or simply laying there looking unapproachable. In almost all of these cases, the pet is simply shy, scared, or depressed. Yes, dogs and cats get depressed just like humans.

These animals may have been turned in by their owners after spending their life in a safe loving environment. Suddenly, they find themselves in a cage surrounded by the sounds of barking dogs and meowing cats. Some of these pets have been abused, others may have gotten lost and picked up as “strays.” Please take the time to at least take them out of that cage and take them for a walk outside. Wake them up if you have to. You never know, they just might surprise you and you'll find your perfect new friend.

Douglasville Patch: Can you tell us about your photography business?

Karen Lawson:  I do a lot of food photography, but I love my job so much that I rarely turn down other photo opportunities.  

Most of my work this time of year is centered around families. I've always considered my photographic style as journalistic, and while I do posed shots for people who want those, I always include quite of few shots that I've taken while getting to know them, or while they are interacting with one another, when they aren't really paying attention to me. Because of that, I tend to be asked to do family photo sessions for people who want more natural and spontaneous shots. A lot of my shoots are outdoors at parks or waterfalls in the woods, etc. Around the holidays I get really busy taking families' photos for their holiday cards. I also do:

  • Newborns and create baby announcements. 
  • Pet portraits ( I love to include the 'human' in many of those shots as well.)   
  • Corporate and lifestyle shots of people for their websites and business cards. I have a full studio lighting setup for those. My setup has been revamped over and over so that it's really mobile. I can grab up what I need pretty quickly and toss it into the car for a headshot session for 20 people at an event if necessary. 
  • Model shots
  • Events
  • Food and beverage shots. I love, love, love to do food photography for restaurants. Creating and photographing beautiful print-worthy food shots is complicated, challenging and fun. It is an artform in itself. It's a huge passion of mine and I've been really doing that professionally for about five years now. I take my studio setup into their restaurant and take photos of their menu items (and sometimes their chefs) for their websites, menus and catering flyers. 

You see? I can't turn anything down because I love this so much. I always say no (at first) when people ask me to do weddings, but I've photographed five of them so far and may be doing one next month.

Thank you so much to Lawson for taking the time to talk to us and for helping with the “Pet of the Week” this week. To learn more about her photography or to book her to photograph your pet, family, wedding or other event, visit www.karenlawsonphotgraphy.com or www.karenlawsonphoto.com.

You can see samples of Lawson's work in the photo gallery. A few of the dogs featured are available for adoption at the Douglas County Animal Shelter. (See the picture's caption for more information.) 

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