Interview with
Shannon Johnstone

Website Link

Barlow: I was looking over your book.  It’s amazing.  It’s different from a lot of other self-publishers that I have contacted.  I was wondering, to start off, what inspired you to create this project.

Johnstone: With that project, it was really important to me that I tell the whole story of who the landfill dogs are, and not just focus on the happy stories, because I had no idea when I started the project that the dogs would get adopted.  In fact, I was expecting a lot of them to just be euthanized.  And, I was just interested in making a statement about environmental concerns, you know, the way we throw the euthanasia drug into the… once it’s in the body, you throw it into the landfill, and then, like, you know, predatory creatures can go in and eat the bodies and then they die immediately.  And that ended up really not being a part of the project.  I didn’t really focus on it, but in the beginning that was what started it.  And then before Landfill Dogs, I had another project where I looked at the euthanasia very straightforwardly, like euthanasia in animal shelters, the lethal injection, and I documented it.  And that work made people really angry, to see it, and they blamed the animal shelters.  And they were like, “Which shelter is this?  It’s cruel!  It’s awful!”  And I was like, “No.  It’s not the shelter.  It’s done everywhere.  You know, it’s what we decided was okay.”  So, Landfill Dogs is sort of a response to that.  That I wanted to kind of take this whole topic and really show it in a way that was easy to look at, and that would create a discussion rather than make people shame them or feel bad or, um, that I hoped that people would look at them and be like, “Why are you calling them a landfill dog?” and then learn more about them.  And then I also thought, okay, I’d like to be able to help them before it’s too late.  So, in any case, it was really important for me with the Landfill Dogs book, to tell that entire story.  I felt it was a really complicated, very multi-layered story.  And the Landfill Dogs project got all the fun. It got whirlwind attention from the media, and it was featured on Buzzfeed, and then from there it went, like, on, like, all these different news sites.  And I got a call from ABC World News, with Diane Sawyer, saying that they wanted to come down and do a feature on it, and then once that happened, it just exploded, and all these people started following it.  And all these people started adopting the dogs because they were landfill dogs, so it was almost kind of like, a few of them got homes, and people were like, “Look at all the good she’s doing!”  And then all of a sudden, they all started getting homes.  So, it was just kind of like, “Wow!”  You just say it’s true, and then it is true.

The truth is that there were a lot of people behind the scenes who were helping and who threw the dogs into foster care and made them, you know, made them more adoptable.  Some of them, actually a lot of them, had little quirks.  They had been there, they had been in solitary confinement for months, you know?  So, in any case, I wanted to make sure that I included the entire thing, and that entire story is a really… it doesn’t make for good news, and it doesn’t make for a simple book, either.  And so, after the ABC World News thing happened, I got calls from many publishers saying they wanted to do the book, and I went with this one that was open-ended, and I took that to mean they were giving me a lot of artistic freedom, which was not the case at all.  It was just me being totally naïve, and when it came time… so I did the manuscript, I edited the books… I mean, I edited the images, in terms of the layout, and I had my own graphic designer I wanted to work with.  It was a friend of mine I wanted to work with, and she teaches graphic design, and she’s always been like, “I’m gonna do your first book,” and I was like, “Oh my God.  Please!”

So, I was like, “Oh, is it okay if she does it?”  And they were like, “Yeah.  That’s great for us.”  So, I had this all lined up and everything, and when it came time for the manuscript, I sent it in, and I heard nothing.  It was crickets.  And I’m like, “Okay.  What, you know, what’s going on?”  And then very little information.  I asked them, “Well, like, what do you… who’s going to be photo editing?”  And she said, “Well, we have someone who manipulates the photos in Photoshop.”  And I said, “Not that kind of photo editor!”  You know, I was like, Aaagghhh!  You know?  So, I was like, “Who am I talking to?  You don’t know anything.”  I know it was terrible of me, but I was really frustrated with them.  So, finally I said, “Let’s have a conversation on the phone with your manager and, you know, with the woman who had acquired me.  And so they were telling me they wanted to have the subtitle of Landfill Dogs, and it was going to be called something like “Rescued to Rehomed” or something like that, and I’m like, “N…no.”  They wanted to focus on the fact they were adopted and really feature their adoption stories.  And I was like, that’s a piece of this puzzle, but it’s not the entire story.  And, so, they wanted me, they wanted to take out all the parts about euthanasias and the open admission shelter, and I said, “No,” and I said, you know, eventually, I said we’re either going to do it my way, or we’re not going to do it at all.  And they said, “Okay.  We won’t do it at all.”

…I was not upset at first.  Well, I was a little upset, but I thought I had other offers and stuff.  But I’m like, well I can… but I was, like, screw you guys, I’ll go on with somebody else, and so I gave them back the… they had given me a $1500 cash advance, so I handed that back to them.  And I just wanted to cut ties and be like… and I had, you know… there’s nothing you have of mine, and I have nothing of yours.  You know?  So, it was a clean break.

And then I started shopping the book around to other publishers…  and the first people who were initially interested… Duelmen, who had contacted me, switched jobs and she was now with a different publisher, and she was like, “We have a different focus.  I don’t think we’ll be able to do this.” I sent it out… In my mind, I sent it out to around to twenty-five people, but I could only find, like… fifteen e-mails…  Apparently, it was only fifteen.  But the publisher was pitching the idea to them, and I had a whole write up…  The responses I got back from them were: “I’m sorry.  It’s a terrible irony.  They’re beautiful pictures, but the terrible irony is that I don’t think we’re going to be able to sell this book.  The other dogs can’t sell, and so, you know, these are tough characters, and I just don’t think it’s going to work out.”

And, honestly, I was completely crushed.  And I was like, “Oh my God.  Everybody loves you when you’re winning.  And then you’re old so fast.”  The waves that I was on came crashing down, and then when I said, “No,” and I didn’t really have a lot of media interest.  And, you know, everyone loves a winning cause, and when I was no longer popular, I was, like, boom.  Dumped.

So, anyways, I decided to… I had remembered meeting these two guys from Blurb at the Society for Photographic Education Conference, and I had done these picture journals that I keep.  Every day I take pictures, and I keep it in a digital journal, and I print it out at the end of the year, and I use Blurb to print them out.  And I told myself I would never show them to other people because I don’t want to edit myself.  I don’t want to think about it.  It’s just for me.  But I always liked the quality of the paper, and the spine was really good and stuff, so, you know, I contacted the guys that I met there, and he was just the nicest man in the world, and he’s no longer with Blurb, and which is just a horrible thing, and he was just… his name was Ken Tall, and he was just awesome.  So, right away he said, “What a beautiful project.  Let me help you out with anything you need,” and he got me these quotes for how to reduce the price and how many runs, how many books we could have, and how much it would cost up front.  And, I decided to go forward with it, and then he’d be like… he’d send me an e-mail and say, “I saw a man with a pit bull, and I thought of you,” and I was just like, “Oh my God, I love you!”  He could have been nicer, and I was just like, “I just can’t believe I fought tooth and nail with this publisher… and here is this company who has been nothing but nice to me.” Oh!  And here’s the other kicker… I left this out… the kicker that made me really made me end the deal with the publisher was, when I told them I wanted to be able to donate a percentage of the sales to the animal shelter, and they said, “No.”  They said, “No.  We’re not doing that.  You can donate your percentage if you want, but we’re not doing that.”  And I said, “Oh my God, that’s horrible.”  So, that also added to, I mean… I’m not trying to profit off of these animals suffering, and that’s also why I was like, “Okay.  If I self-publish, I can donate.  I can pay for, you know… I can make the money back that I had put in up front, and then all the additional money I can give to the animal shelter to help the dogs going forward, or the cats, even, for that matter.”  All the money in the beginning from the first run went towards heartworm treatment for dogs who were still in the shelter.  95% of the dogs, the Landfill Dogs, were heartworm positive.  It’s a really expensive undertaking, which deters people from adopting them, which is one of the reasons they’re overlooked.  So, I wanted to be able to do that, and so what Blurb ended up doing after Landfill Dogs came out, the book of it, they did a fundraiser on their Facebook page, and they said, “For every person who’s adopted a dog, tell us your story, and for every comment, we will donate… $100.”  So, they donated $2500 to the heartworm treatment.  Which, I’m just like, oh my gosh, you guys did a fundraiser!  You guys are just so awesome.  And just, Blurb treated me so well, and the quality was beautiful.  I had a really good experience.  I would do it again, and it made me really think that the publishing world is dying, and, if you have a story to tell, and you want to tell it the way you want to tell it, and you know… It wasn’t like I wanted to put crap out there.  I hired my own editor to edit when I decided I wasn’t the best writer, and I knew I was making mistakes and stuff, and I wanted another set of eyes to look at it, and I was willing to do all that stuff.  I was just like, I didn’t want a gatekeeper to tell me what I can and cannot put out there and how I should do it.

Without hesitation, I had a wonderful experience, and I’m so happy I went with the self-publishing, but the only part I only feel a little bit weird about, and I kick myself every time I think of it is, you know, having a published book, at least in academia… cause I teach at a college, and it’s just that self-published is not seen as very prestigious.  So, you know, it’s kind of like…

Barlow: I think that maybe, but that it’s changing.

Johnstone: I hope so.  I think the fact that anybody can do it, at least, my college was like, I mean, they didn’t seem like they were most happy that it was receiving attention because then the college receives attention.  So, they didn’t really stick on that point.  It was kind of like I didn’t have that feather in my cap of having a published book out there.  But, if I had put out the book that the publisher had wanted me to put out, I would have been ashamed of it, and I didn’t want that.

Barlow: I would definitely say that this book speaks to the animal studies student in me and that the creative nonfiction people in my MFA program will be very interested in it.  And I think you make a great point that this is something probably that could have only been accomplished in the way that it was accomplished, via self-publishing.  Because the particular publisher, and most likely all of the other publishers would not have wanted to create the book and donated the proceeds in the way that you envisioned.  And it just reminds of the idea that cute animals sell, so they go after the cute animals, and they don’t really want to tell a story that doesn’t really have to do with the cutesy side of things.  And, so, perhaps this was the only route you could have chosen to tell, you know, the other side.

Johnstone: Yes, totally.  You’re an animal studies student?

Barlow: I took… I did an MA before the MFA, and I took an animal studies course with Stacy Alaimo, and we read a lot of animal studies theory, like Cary Wolfe and other theorists, so yeah.

Johnstone: That’s so cool.  That’s actually… as I was working on Landfill Dogs, I found out about the human animal studies, which I didn’t, I never knew anything about that as a field, and that has been hugely informative and helpful to me and the way I think about my photography and photographing animals.  So, I just love to hear that you’re studying that, as well, or that you studied that already.  That’s awesome.

Barlow: It was illuminating, definitely, and I’m really glad that I took the class.  Terribly saddening, but illuminating.

Johnstone: Yeah, yeah.  I know.  I know.  It starts to make… every aspect of your life starts to be, like, ah man.

Barlow: Yeah, it’s true.  It’s true.

Johnstone: Everything we do exploits animals.

Barlow: Yes.  And especially… ‘cause I was reading about your book, and you said Landfill Dogs kind of highlights how we treat animals like property or objects, and it’s definitely, definitely true.

Johnstone: Yeah.  And dogs are like an easy thing… Most people would agree on because we don’t breed them for food…  The only reason in the United States that we have them is for companionship.  I think everybody would agree… why do we treat them like they’re property, but they are.  That’s all they are.  They’re property.  I mean, under law.

Barlow: Right.  I’m always reminded of it whenever I hear about people who tried to transport a pet via an airline as luggage, and then the pet dies, and I’m like, “Well, what did you expect?”  You can’t treat a living being like it’s a piece of luggage.

Johnstone: Right.  Right.  Right.  If you look at some of the breeder sites, they say things like, “We have every color in stock.”  They use that kind of… you know, and they say, “We ship everywhere.”  And I’m like, “Oh my gosh.  It’s not a handbag.”

Barlow: So, normally I would ask someone if they are legally allowed to say whether their book was optioned for film or television, and even though that’s not how this book could be translated, you did end up with a lot of press that took you into ABC World News.  And, so, did you do an interview with Diane Sawyer, or… What exactly did you do?

Johnstone: Yeah, so I did that through her correspondent.  I never actually met her.  It was Steve… I’m going to slaughter his last name…  Osunsami.  He came down here, and he came to the… you can watch the clip if you want… but he came down, and we went to the animal shelter together.  And their filmmakers followed us all the way up Landfill Park while I was doing a photo shoot, and they interviewed me up at the top of Landfill Park.  Then they followed up with the dog and the person that adopted them.  And they followed up to people who had adopted one of the dogs who I featured whose owner had gotten deported, and so they had ended up in the animal shelter.  And they went and interviewed the family that adopted them, too.  It was kind of a nice little piece.  They also kind of totally glossed over… they made it seem like I take pictures and then boom, they get a home.  And that’s totally how they painted that.  And I was a little like, “It’s not quite that simple.”  But then it was part of this America Strong feature.  They had sort of like Americans doing strong things.  I guess that was their tag, and they wanted it to fit really neatly.  And the person who ended up adopting the dogs… she came into the shelter the next day and adopted him.  And I honestly don’t know if she just walked in by chance.  I mean, I don’t know.  It could have been totally random, you know?  But… I mean, he had been there for a while, and we did take the pictures, and then it makes a nice story.  But, they got lucky is another way to think of it, too.

Anyway, there is… one of my former students is a filmmaker, and she wanted to do a documentary on Landfill Dogs.  She started filming each year, she would film a little bit more and a little bit to do different styles, with different kinds of images and perspectives.  But nothing has really happened with that, so I don’t know if we will actually go forward.  And that kind of died down when continuing the Landfill Dogs project.  It was only supposed to be a year long.  It’s just… it’s… I wanted someone else to take it over because they have an active Facebook page with people willing to share and stuff.  And it’s extremely time consuming, and I feel like I’ve taken the same picture a million times over at this point.  It’s been six years.

Anyway, during the summer we tried to do a Landfill Dogs shoot.  I don’t know if the summers here are just getting hotter or what, but we tried to do a couple of them this summer, and the dogs overheated to the point where it made me really nervous, and I said, “I’m not doing this again this summer, until it cools off.”  And that’s never happened before in the past.  And sometimes maybe that’s because we would go a little earlier in the morning, but… I don’t know.  But the dog was in distress, and I was like, “This is horrible.  I’m like, I feel terrible.”  We were going to get ice and cooling them down, and it’s like, this isn’t helpful to anyone.

Barlow: That’s a good point.  I live in Texas, so the weather here is always hot, so it’s hard to tell.  But I’ve heard that elsewhere it’s been getting warmer and warmer.

Johnstone: Yeah.  And there’s no shade at Landfill Park at all.  Because it’s just a mile, and there’s no trees, there’s no nothing, so it’s completely exposed.  So, even if it’s cloudy in the beginning, if the clouds blow over, you’re, like, you know.  If the dogs are heartworm positive, they are taxed extra easily.  So, anyway, I have put a hold on it, at least until it gets cooler down here.  But I have slowed down quite a bit.

Barlow: I’m curious if you view your experience as one of a kind or something capable of being accomplished by any writer who’s serious about self-publishing, especially in your area.  Do you think that Landfill Dogs was kind of a miraculous event where people became interested in it, or do you think that this is something that hearkens to a lot of people?

Johnstone: This is a really good question.  I think there’s a couple of things at play.  I think one is, dogs are popular.  Cats are not as popular.  And I didn’t go into this.  If I could have taken cats out on a leash, and photographed them up there, I would have.  I didn’t even plan on photographing pit bulls.  That was just who was leftover at the animal shelter.  So, I think that it’s really easy for people to get excited or be happy to share pictures of cute dogs, or cute pictures of dogs, and I think people… And, you know, I did this in 2012… I don’t know if Instagram was around then or not.  I can’t remember.  If it was, it wasn’t very popular.  But, I don’t know.  I think people were ready to share pictures, and I think I was lucky in terms of people that got behind it, but I don’t think that it’s unique.  I think there’s a lot of really great photography projects that don’t get attention that should.  They are very deserving.

I’ve seen other people. There’s this other guy… I was hoping people would do their own Landfill Dog projects in their own community.  I was like, if there were a whole Landfill Dog movement, how cool would that be?  And his photographs…  My husband was like, “Oh, his photographs are better than you.”  And I was like, “Awwww.”

Barlow: Awww.

Johnstone: Then, for some reason…  And I don’t know.  For some reason, it just didn’t take off.  And I don’t know why some things… and it doesn’t have to be the topic of dogs.  I don’t understand why some things people get on board with and they, it just flies, and other things it doesn’t.  It doesn’t have anything to do with quality.  It doesn’t have anything to do with meaningfulness.  I think, just, Landfill Dogs just hit something at the right time for a lot of people, and I got lucky in terms of getting a lot of attention for it, and the dogs got lucky because of that.  So, yeah.  I don’t think there’s anything special that I did.  I mean, the Facebook page really helped out tremendously.  That was even my husband’s idea.  I didn’t even think of that… When I started it, I was thinking of photographs you would hang in a museum.  I was thinking of large scale.  I wasn’t even thinking of it being a social media presence and that being the thing that really took off and got people involved, and I think in the end that’s really what did make it special was the fact that people, if you didn’t like what was happening to these dogs, you could do something about it.  Even if that something was sharing their picture, you could change their fate before it was too late.  And, so, I think having the viewer participate in the art and what that art is saying and what’s happening is something that is new that I think is just beginning with social media and with the internet.  I don’t think that’s ever been around before, where people can change the context and the meaning as it’s still happening, you know?

But, anyway, I don’t think Landfill Dogs is unique in that.  I think there are other projects… I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but, I’m sure there are.

Barlow: I’m curious if you think there is a question that I should ask you that I haven’t, that would be a really good question to ask about this project or how you went about it or this process.

Johnstone: Ooh, um, I don’t know.  I should have thought of that, and I didn’t.  Sorry.

Barlow: No, no.  It’s okay.  You’ve been answering most of my questions as you’ve been talking, so…

Johnstone: Oh, good.

Barlow: Have you been contacted by, or have you contacted, people in the more traditional publishing arena, and are they more interested in republishing Landfill Dogs, or are they interested in publishing future books, or have you just not contacted anybody?

Johnstone: The only person who has contacted me is another self-publishing kind of a thing, and they contacted about a reprint, and I wasn’t really interested.  I mean… I sent it in to Blurb.  Not by contact or anything.  The amount of work that goes into proofing a book, making sure the plates are exactly what you want, and the sizing is correct and understanding all of their profiling and stuff, is a headache.  Once you have it set up with someone, it makes it easier to stay with them.  If that makes sense?

Barlow: Right, right.  That does.

Johnstone: That’s why I’m not interested in switching at all.  Also, I did a second run of Landfill Dogs with them, and so there are still plenty of copies of those still up, so, but, yeah the first one sold out in a couple of months, so it was like, “Holy shit.”  I didn’t order more because I didn’t think I would go with that…  But yeah, I ordered a second run, and people were like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to get that book.”  And then they just forget because it takes seven or eight months to get the second run printed, so none of them are interested.  “Ken Tall said to me, ‘Scarcity drives sales.’”  It’s true!

Barlow: It’s so true.

Johnstone: But, anyway.  So, only another self-publisher had contacted me.  And I mean, some of the people, when I had reached out to them, and they were like, “Let me know about other projects,” and I just took that to mean them saying something nice.  I didn’t think they were serious about it, and I have not reached out to them.  I doubt a lot of them would even remember me.