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Simply Art-tastic - An Interview with Alicja Zmysłowska on Dog Photography

Thursday, September 2, 2021 - 14:46

A lover of animals, beautiful landscapes, travels, graphics, drawing, and of course, photography.
She turned her passions into a full-time job.

nPhoto: On this day, you’ve reached 14 years of experience in photographing dogs. Being a really long time, has the genre not begun to bore you a bit? Have you ever experienced burnout, which, for example, wedding photographers often mention?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Unfortunately, I had it. It occurred to me on a few occasions. Usually, that state lasted for a few weeks, but by the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the feeling hit me harder and lasted longer. I thought I would forever quit photographing dogs… it wasn’t as much about burnout as it was about the fact that I was being plagiarized by a certain photographer from abroad. She “copied” around 30 of my original photographs, website design, names, and workshop posters. I stopped wanting to create anything, worrying that it’ll be taken by somebody else... I know that it’s a fairly controversial topic, and it brings many emotions to mind. To be more precise, the plagiarized photos had identical compositions, dog models and their positions, places, and retouching, and they weren’t exactly the most common photos or frames or dog and location combinations.
This burnout ran in sync with the beginning of the pandemic, so at least I could give myself some time for rest. I waited for my inspiration and passion to return. Luckily, I was able to bounce back!

nPhoto: Was photography your only source of income?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Photography was always my only source of income. I've been earning from it since I was 17 years old.

nPhoto: For that 14 year period, did you exclusively photograph animals, or did you do other kinds of photo sessions as well?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I also did weddings - open air and reportage, food, architecture, product and child photography. I was able to shoot photos of many animal species - which I am glad for, because it solidified my preference for dog models.

nPhoto: How did your adventure start? When did you stop to say to yourself, “Today I will become a dog photographer?” Not a painter or graphics designer, according to your talents, but a photographer, which also lets you use those abilities of course. How did your family react?

Alicja Zmysłowska: My adventure with dog photography began very early, when I was only 12 years old. Back then I wasn’t aware that it was going to become my job. It was just a way of spending free time with my sweet dog Kiara - she was a childhood dream come true. She joined our family in 2006.

Before I began making photos I was interested in graphics design and Digital Art - I drew a lot at a young age. I was convinced to do photography upon realising that I can combine two of my passions into work, alongside another passion, which is travelling. Both work and travel came naturally to me from the dedication to dog photo sessions.

I think that my family was initially surprised with that kind of turn of events, but I am a little myself, so it doesn’t phase me. I generally thought that I would become a filmmaker and add something to cinematography. I wanted to attend film school. For a time I also thought of a fine arts academy.

nPhoto: You are very oriented towards photographing dogs. Are those the only kinds of models which you accept? Do you, for example, also accept sessions for cats? Or other pupils?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Of course, I have worked with other species before cats, horses, and even a Spanish mountain goat! It was requested by a woman who adored them.
In the beginning of my career, I even photographed purebred mice, which was an interesting experience - and those photos turned out great. Thanks to their size, I was able to show lots of creativity during that session.
Yet, amidst all of these unique photo sessions and for how interesting they were, it only gave me more reasons to believe that I liked photographing dogs the most. It's what moves my heart and ends up as my greatest source of inspiration.

nPhoto: Do you need to love animals in order to photograph them? Can someone who thinks they are just a photography subject stand behind the lens?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I believe that if you don’t “feel” anything upon seeing something which we photograph, it’ll never end up as a good photo. You can always create a functionally correct frame in which the dog looks ok, yet I think that something will be missing from it - something which makes the photograph unique.

nPhoto: You pick out your outdoor locations very carefully. It’s the first thing I thought of when seeing your portfolio for the first time. “Wow, that girl can find truly magical and atmospheric fields, forests, lakes, squares, slopes….” They’re a photo subject of their own. Adding animals to it - and you have just about everything to make the frame beam with delight. It’s clear that you don’t like doing things the easy way. How much does it cost you? Work, time, and energy? Does it give you much satisfaction?

Alicja Zmysłowska: It’s true; I appreciate beautiful places, every of their fragments. I also appreciate the beauty in places which are much less obvious and aren’t so “incredible.”
I was born in Upper Silesia, so I didn’t have that many mesmerising outdoor locations nearby. So, in the beginning, I had to make use of what was around. Only with time, with much thanks to being invited to different nations, did I begin my adventure with traveling and photographing dogs in surreal landscapes.
The first one was Norway; I absolutely fell in love with that place. It was in 2015. I then also visited Austria and Slovakia.

nPhoto: How long did your longest dog photo session take?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I think it was a day in which I photographed for 11 hours, with breaks for both the dog and myself, of course. Back then, I did sessions for myself, not for a client.

nPhoto: I didn’t see any studio photos. In general, indoor photos don’t seem to suit you too much. I can’t even begin to imagine the frames. But, surprise me - maybe you’ve had jobs like that?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I’ll admit, photos of that sort aren’t my strong side, but I did visit the studio a couple of times. It’s not something that brings me the most joy. Sometimes it’s nice for a change, but I don’t really find myself there in the same way as outdoors, where anything could suddenly bring me inspiration.

nPhoto: How many author’s exhibitions have you had?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I’ve had three. The most important one was in the Kraków Palace of Fine Art, where my black and white works were presented.

nPhoto: How important of a client group are animal breeders to you?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Generally, I don’t photograph for breeders very often. My clients are more so people who simply have their own beloved pets and are not an animal for breeding.

nPhoto: Do private pet sessions even sell in Poland?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Of course, there is a very large market for dog photo sessions in Poland, and I would say that the trend is growing.

nPhoto: What kinds of photo requests do you mainly accept? Is it just photos of the four-legged joy bringers alone or some with the family included?

Alicja Zmysłowska: People want photos of their pets first and foremost. However, even if the client only wants photos of their dog, I always recommend some shots of them being together, as those kinds of photos are important.

nPhoto: What is this power that you have which makes animals listen to you? In other words, how do you keep that kind of company so calm?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I’ve always had contact with animals, mainly with dogs. Ever since I was a child, I was passionate about them. Before I had my own, I went to walk dogs for animal shelters. That’s where my connection and experience with them came from. That’s also why I can work with any pet, not just with perfectly trained ones. My Kiara is over 15 years old now, and Ciri, my Border Collie, is now five and a half. I learned a lot thanks to them.

nPhoto: I get the impression that you’re a very delicate, tender person - then, I see your photos, and I think about you being in some kind of wilderness, with animals. You deal with equipment in extreme conditions and sleep in a tent - I find it hard to imagine you in such a setting. Can you tell us a little about that?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Generally, I’m not a huge fan of tiring oneself, walking several dozen kilometers, or sleeping under difficult conditions, yet it brought me a lot of joy. It was its own kind of sacrifice, which allowed me to create photos I had in mind. It’s an incredible adventure that I don’t regret at all. I would do it again, without a doubt, but it’s not like it wasn’t difficult for me either. There were some difficult nights in a damp tent, with even damper clothes, there was wet equipment, and there were lenses obscured with water condensation. Worst of all, there were sore legs after walking 28km within a day…

nPhoto: What three characteristics should a pet photographer have? Some must-haves in order to make do in this field?

Alicja Zmysłowska: A pet photographer must have great empathy and sensitivity towards the aforementioned pets.

nPhoto: Sometimes, you make photos that simply can’t stay digital. They need to be printed. You know this because you sell your own prints. Do you get a lot of orders for those?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Compared to orders for photo sessions or for workshops, there are a lot fewer of those interested in print. They are mainly people from abroad, but I hope that more people will learn to appreciate it here!

nPhoto: What do the walls in your home look like?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Right now, they’re empty, but they’re waiting for prints from nPhoto :)

nPhoto: Can your work with animals be dangerous? This question popped into my head, especially when you showed photo sessions of what you yourself called “wild souls”: Czechoslovakian wolfdogs, wolves, American Wolfdogs, foxes, and Australian Dingo. Have you had any hair-raising moments?

Alicja Zmysłowska: Honestly, I’ve never had any situations that I’d call dangerous or ones where I would be in danger because of the animal I was taking photos of. I think I was most afraid of horses - because of their sheer stature and that I didn’t understand them as well as dogs. Besides that, nothing happened to me during the photo session. Unless we’re including a fall in the parking lot after hours of running under a waterfall with the dogs. I tripped over my shoelaces.
When it comes to wolf hybrids, wolves, and Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs – some needed more time to get accustomed to me, but they’re not aggressive. They’re just a little more shy and need their time in order to get used to the situation and to approach me.

nPhoto: In Poland, photographing animals isn’t as popular as in other places abroad. Is it a sustainable source of income?

Alicja Zmysłowska: It is, most definitely.

nPhoto: You do workshops in Finland, Belgium, England, Holland, France, and of course, Poland, among others. Where would you say is the greatest level of interest in that?

Alicja Zmysłowska: I did the most workshops in Belgium, England, and Denmark. I do think that interest in art-focused dog photography is growing, and I’m getting invitations to more and more countries for it.

nPhoto: From your personal observations, what’s the parity in this kind of photography? Do men or women work in this field more often?

Alicja Zmysłowska: More women occupy this field, definitely.

nPhoto: Can you give us three pieces of advice for aspiring photographers who would like to start their own adventure with photographing animals? The first piece of advice is on me, sign up for your workshops!

Alicja Zmysłowska: Thanks for recommending my workshops! I do advise attending them for anyone who would like to grow in this genre. The biggest piece of advice from me: to take enjoyment from it, not to discourage oneself – and to keep trying until we get what we want to achieve.

Interviewer: Monika Szałajko

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