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Local Photographer Uses Her Skills To Help Animals In Need

Published: September 25, 2016

Sarah Matula is a skilled photographer who volunteers her talent toward getting shelter pets adopted.

Her passion for photography started at a young age and was greatly influenced by her father.

“My father is an award-winning photographer in the UK,” said Ms Matula. “He was a press photographer for the London Times and London Sun, and ran his own business. So, I grew up in the dark room and in the studio.”

Sometimes Ms Matula even found herself working in front of the camera as a child model for her father.

Growing up, she was always very compassionate with animals. She remembers fondly how her family raised an orphan lamb that was so young she had to bottle feed it. She even had a rescued cat who came to her with a broken tail. Today, she owns three rescued dogs, two rescued cats, three horses, and five chickens.

She decided to combine her two loves — photography and animals — and make it her profession.

Her Start With Nonprofits

When moving from the UK to Newtown in 2013, she had two rescued dogs and found out her 14-year-old golden retriever had an aggressive form of cancer. To ensure her other dog would not be left without a companion, she started looking into adopting a dog in the United States.

It was in that search that she realized there was a extreme epidemic of animals in shelters, and that many would never get the opportunity to leave.

“One of the things I noticed was that for certain organizations, did have really good photographs, and others [took photos with] an iPhone in the back of a kennel where you couldn’t really see what was going on. It was a trend that I started to notice,” she said.

Wanting to use her photography ability to help these animals have a better chance of getting adopted, she decided to reach out to the only US animal organization she knew at the time: Brass City Rescue Alliance in Middlebury. When she spoke to them and they found out she lived in Newtown, she was encouraged to reach out to the nonprofit organization Danbury Animal Welfare Society (DAWS), since it was more local.

Always wanting to give their animals the best opportunity to get adopted, DAWS staff immediately accepted Ms Matula’s offer to photograph their dogs and cats.

DAWS Community Outreach Coordinator Kristen Backus met Ms Matula in spring 2015 and said, “Each time I have worked with Sarah it is an absolute pleasure. Sarah’s photography has benefited many dogs and cats at DAWS, as well as the dogs and cats at municipal pounds and other shelters, rescue horses, and even rescue parrots!”

Her successful work with DAWS had led Ms Matula to also help photograph animals for a number of other organizations.

She has taken pictures of cats and kittens for the Animal Center in Newtown this summer; the New England group Destiny’s Road Animal Rescue, where she photographed the “Itty Bitty Pitty Puppy Party” for five 8-week-old pit bulls; and various municipal pounds in Connecticut.

Working on getting animals adopted from the municipal pounds does hold a special place in Ms Matula’s heart. With many pounds having a finite amount of space, limited budget, and having to accept owner surrenders and intake of strays, she firmly believes adoption can saves lives.

Ms Matula explained, “If the kennels are full, someone has to go and that is incredibly heartbreaking. For me, to get a dog adopted out of a municipal pound does feel a little bit special.

“Any animal that is adopted from any rescue organization is still saving a life, because it creates that extra space behind them,” she added. “So, to adopt one out from a no-kill shelter, another animal can go into that no-kill shelter that was possibly coming from a kill-pound, so you are still freeing up that space.”

Ms Matula has already been able to see the positive impact she has on rescues and shelters.

A municipal pound in Connecticut reached out to her for help, and after photographing its dogs, they were all adopted shortly thereafter. People from as far away as Maine have seen her photos online and driven down to Connecticut specifically to adopt a shelter animal.

“When you get a comment ‘I saw your picture, so I had to come and meet the dog,’ it gives you a very good feeling,” said Ms Matula with a smile. “I am happy to take pictures for anyone who wants me to, in rescue and shelter [organizations].”

Before working with a group, though, she always researched the organization. She makes sure it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and that there is no signs of hoarding involved. Ms Matula always wants to make sure that her volunteered time and photography are being put toward a reputable cause with the animal’s best interest at heart.

Her Style of Photography

Ms Matula’s art of photography is focused on breaking down the stereotype of what a shelter animal looks like.

In an advertising world where images of pound animals are primarily depicted as looking like an ASPCA’s commercial with dirty dogs huddled in cages behind bars, she wants her shelter photos to move away from those dark images and appeal to a wider audience.

“It is almost rebranding. The existing branding is absolutely valid, but it preaches to the choir of people that already understand,” said Ms Matula. “That will always tug at the heartstrings of a large population. Those people will go and adopt. What is missing from that is the large body of population that see shelter dogs as sick, scared, aggressive, dirty, too old, never any cute puppies; there are a whole bunch of reasons why people won’t adopt. It’s that lack of understanding for what a shelter dog is,” she said.

She wants to debunk the stigma that dogs in a shelter or rescue would not be “for them,” and showcase the bright-eyed, beautiful, energetic dog that could be sitting on their couch, cuddling with them.

“An image can be very powerful to help change those perceptions and get people to understand there is nothing wrong with the animal. The only thing ‘wrong’ with the animal is that it doesn’t have a home. They’re not broken. They have just been let down by people,” Ms Matula said.

She added, “The picture doesn’t get the dog adopted, it gets the dog and family into the same room. The dog gets itself adopted.”

Ms Matula’s photography has brought numerous potential adopters through shelter doors hoping to give an animal its forever home.

Ms Backus said, “Sarah has a gift for capturing each animal’s personality in her photographs. She is incredibly talented at knowing when certain whimsical props or accessories might bring out a particular animal’s goofy or silly side. At the same time, she knows when to photograph an animal in a simple way, letting their emotion shine through their eyes or expression.”

Ms Matula is able to do this through a variety of techniques she has learned over the years. The most important rule she has found is to not have an animal take a nap before a photo shoot. Boundless energy, especially in puppies who are already naturally lively, pose challenges for capturing the right shot.

What also is crucial is making sure the animal being photographed is not in an uncomfortable environment that may create stress. She likes to ensure the animals are as comfortable as possible before taking photos. If cats are too scared to leave their crates, she will photograph them inside and Photoshop the bars out later.

For a dog named Charity at DAWS, who is still waiting to be adopted in her forever home, she had a special circumstance. “She had only just come out of quarantine, and she was terrified,” explained Ms Matula. So, she just sat with Charity for about 45 minutes with the camera on the ground waiting to gain her trust. After Charity had sniffed the camera and made her way up to her, then Ms Matula was able to take Charity’s photos.

In most cases though, she says that the best method for getting a great photo from dogs is treats; squeakers, which she usually obtains after her dogs eviscerate their toys; and her specialty: Donald Duck noises that commonly evoke a head tilt from dogs.

“Peanut butter works really nicely,” she added. “Particularly if you want the goofy faces and them sticking their tongue out.”

For cats, however, it is a little bit more tricky. She insisted what she needs for cats is “feather toys and prayers.”
To date, she has photographed a variety of animals, including parrots, ferrets, cows, horses, goats, and even a snake — which she is terrified of — for a pet picture with Santa photo shoot.

Ultimately, she will photograph whatever animal is in need of rescuing, but she loves photographing the older dogs, especially ones that have previously known a life with a home and family, but are now in a shelter.

“When you get an older dog to look down the lens, they really talk to you,” she said. “The look of hurt and confusion of ‘Why am I here?’ — you can see it with the older dogs.”

Additional Work

Sarah Matula is part of the international 501(c)(3) organization called HeARTs Speak, a group of artists and photographers who help animal welfare organizations. It has a juried entry with a committee that assess a person’s work before acceptance.

The group has a massive social media reach, as well as an exclusive online community for all the photographers to talk to one another to learn tricks and tips.

In one case, she was helping a shelter with a dog that had been there for months. No one could get a picture of the dog looking at the camera. So, Ms Matula stationed herself far away, did a great amount of zoom on her camera, and then rustled a treat bag.

“She looked, and as she turned, I got a full face front photograph that came out nicely,” said Ms Matula. It was a trick she had learned from her peers at HeARTs Speak.

Ms Backus said she has seen the benefits. “It’s remarkable. Over the last year, as Sarah became a HeARTs Speak member, I could see her hone her talent even more. Being a member of this renowned community of artists has made her an even stronger advocate for shelter animals, and the fact that she can do so with one of her single images, continually amazes me.”

Ms Matula recently set up a showcase about changing people’s perceptions of shelter animals and debunking stereotypes at the Bethel Public Library, which she hopes to feature at other locations in the future. For her display, she set up a variety of possible perceptions people have, like shelter animals are too old; there are no puppies; or they are not trainable. She then featured a series of photographs that she had taken that prove the perceptions wrong.

Ms Backus explained, “The power behind her photographs is beyond measure. Sarah has not only helped animals find their forever homes, she has helped change the perception some may have had of shelter dogs and cats as sad or broken. Sarah is one of the unsung heroes in the animal welfare world.

Ways To Help Animals In Shelters

Sarah Matula is passionate about spreading the message of what people can to do help shelter animals. She believes everyone can do something to help out. Here is her advice for people in every situation:

  • If a person is ready and committed: Adopt
  • If a person is not certain they are ready: Foster
  • If a person is not in position to take on an animal: Volunteer
  • If a person does not have time to volunteer: Donate
  • If a person does not have funds right now: Network on social media

To view Sarah Matula’s photography, visit sarahmatula.photography and facebook.com/matulaphoto.

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