Photographer Jesse Freidin has always loved dogs. When he opened his studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco about six years ago, he made it his artistic vision to study the relationship and bond between dogs and their people, people and their dogs. To him, that relationship is absolutely a mutual one.
“The way that we are with our dogs is really a reflection of who we are as our deepest selves,” he says. “The work that I’m doing is all about telling the story about people via our dogs, how the dogs are conduits.”
It wasn’t until a serendipitous meeting a little over a year ago, though, that Freidin’s vision gained a specific new direction. Enter Dr. Rob Garofalo of the Lurie Children’s Hospital. “My father and Rob were sitting next to each other at this conference,” Freidin said. “Rob was showing my father the pictures of Fred, his new baby yorkie, on his phone. My dad mentioned that I was a photographer in San Francisco. Rob reached out and we had a really wonderful session.” Through this session, Freidin learned that, in addition to leading the HIV prevention center at the Lurie Children’s Hospital, Dr. Garofalo is also HIV positive.
“His relationship with Fred was so beautiful. There was something really present about that bond that they shared,” Fredin says. “When he got his dog, he had just survived cancer, and he was just coming out about his own HIV diagnosis. And having a dog really helped him survive that process.”
Fred helped him so much that Dr. Garofalo started his own nonprofit Fred Says. The organization uses the image of little Fred on T-shirts, mugs and greeting cards to raise money to provide care for HIV-positive teens, as well as decrease the stigma these teens face with regard to their diagnosis. According to Freidin, the idea for his upcoming passion project “When Dogs Heal” grew out of the Fred Says project.
“I wanted to be able to tell that story in a bigger way,” says Freidin. So the two began to brainstorm: What would it be like to seek out other HIV-positive dog owners, learn their stories and photograph them with their canine companions? The duo put out a call to organizations that support those that are HIV positive and invited those that have dogs to meet. Their writer, Zach Stafford, interviewed them to get a better idea of their experience and making sure they were comfortable with the project. The response, Freidin says, has been great so far. To date, Freidin has photographed people and pooches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. The official launch of the organization will take place on World AIDS Day in December 2015 in New York City.
Each session with Freidin is an hour long. “ I make sure everyone is really comfortable and calm and present and just talk to them.” Sometimes, he admits, the sessions can be a bit challenging. An excitable, hyperactive puppy, for example, doesn’t necessarily want to sit still long enough to be photographed. But that energy lends tangible authenticity to the moment, and it comes through in portraits. “Besides,” Freidin adds, “after a while they’re gonna conk out, and I want to see that too. I want to see the beautiful light in my client’s home and all the dog toys strewn about the house. It’s about real everyday detail.”
The stories behind the images are all unique, and all uniquely moving. And some are heartbreaking tales: stories about the fear that comes with dealing with the illness, of losing friends or family members after a diagnosis. But Freidin says, “There is also so much beauty and positivity in these portraits that really truly comes out.”
And a lot of that has to do with the dogs.
“We are so used to pets being in our world, pampering them and seeing them as family members but also keeping them really cutesy,” Freidin says. To him, dogs are more than just animals — even if we do sometimes dotingly refer to them as our ‘fur-babies.’ They’re creatures that live firmly in the moment, and by doing so, keep us grounded too. “I think there is just something about wanting connection, wanting to feel appreciated. Our human animal wants that. And doing that alongside an animal companion is validating and non-judgmental. You can open up and be vulnerable and it’s a really powerful relationship.” This can be an especially profound relationship for people who are facing a life-threatening illness, especially one that comes with all the cultural stigma of HIV.
When asked about a story in particular that stands out to him, Freidin is hard-pressed to think of just one. He describes several situations in which clients had been living on the street with their dogs. “Whatever craziness happened, whatever intense experience they had, their dogs stayed with them. These dogs were making sure their people got out of these situations, and now they’re okay. All the stories are different, different walks of life, but that’s the theme. Their dogs stuck by them, and now they’re okay, and that’s beautiful.”