Being a lover of both photography and animals, I fully expected to be moved by stories of unconditional love, warmth, and comfort — the sort that come curled up in a lap and wrapped in their own natural fur coat — by “When Dogs Heal,” an exhibit about canines and their HIV-positive owners.
The photographs are indeed lovely, but it is photographer Jesse Freidin’s generosity of spirit — in his ability to elicit his subjects’ stories — that shines through most impressively. Stories of struggles for independence, against violence, and toward sobriety and strength that all end with the same question: Exactly who did the rescuing? The answer is, of course, equal parts owner and pet.
What I did not expect was finding a personal connection when I attended the exhibit’s December 3 reception at the LGBT Community Center (where it runs through January). I don’t really know why — after all the years I’ve been part of our community, why don’t I always find a connection?
Jesse Freidin’s photographic exhibit of dogs and their HIV-positive owners tells remarkable stories
But just off of the elevator, there it was: a most joyous portrait of Michelle, her daughter Raven, and Raven’s dog Couture. But Couture is not Raven’s first dog. Raven’s first dog was Charlie, when she was just a little girl struggling at school with her HIV status and asking her mommy if she was going to die. I knew that beautiful little Raven and her mommy. Raven is now 25 and soon to be a mother herself.
Michelle talked about getting involved with the photography project and recruiting subjects for the project.
“It really took me back. Charlie was Raven’s first love, he was very healing for her,” she explained.
At one time when moving into a new home, Michelle had to jump through hoops getting medical notes to have the landlord accept Charlie into an apartment where no pets where allowed. When organizers of the exhibit had difficulty finding subjects in New York City, Michelle got right on it. The idea meant the world to her and Raven — “that’s their family and love, their life.”
That sense of family is seen in the many of the stories on display. Touching portraits of pups large and small with their doting parents. One of my favorites is Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Lotti Da and her loving canine, Shiner.
When I reached the end of the first hallway, I looked up and found myself face to face with a portrait of my friend Bert. On his lap were individual photos of his late partner David and their boxer Keila. With that one photo, I instantly understood the simple loving concept of the show. The photographer brought back to me the memory of a photograph I took of David and Keila that adorns David’s tombstone. I’ll never forget the insane amount of joy both David and Bert took in that dog.
Every picture tells a story, and these photographs stand on their own beautifully. But Freidin’s astonishing ability to get his subjects — one after the other — to open up and tell their very personal stories is what deserves extra appreciation here. Sharing heals as well.
WHEN DOGS HEAL
Photographs by Jesse Freidin
LGBT Community Center
208 W. 13th St.