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Alex Cearns - Interview

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by Tema (subscribe)
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She is one of the most celebrated photographers in the world and over the weekend, Alex Cearns was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for her service to the community through charitable organisations.

With so many accomplishments up her sleeve, Houndstooth Studio's Alex has proven herself to be exceptional in the field of animal photography, where she captures some of our most precious creatures in their calming, pleasing, and candid states of mind.

"The right image viewed by the right person at the right time can lead to more adoptions, greater awareness for a cause, or increased donations to an animal charity." - Alex Cearns

With her upcoming event at the National Wine Centre, Alex is hoping that audience members will be able to have a more in-depth experience of how she is able to capture her award-winning shots of animals and wildlife.

I was fortunate enough to score an e-interview with Alex, where we discussed her passion to pursue the career of an 'image maker' and shift from a 'law maker' developed - have a read of our exchange below:

Tema: Can you please tell us a bit about yourself, Alex?
Alex: My lifelong love of animals began during my formative years in outback South Australia, where my father was a sheep shearer and wool valuer. As an only child, my first friends and constant companions were my dogs, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits and bottle-fed lambs. My family had a great regard for Australian wildlife and I often helped my mother rescue and care for a wide array of injured joeys, birds and other creatures until they could be released back into their natural habitat. At age 10, I moved with my family to Tom Price in North Western Australia, a place that was the ideal environment grow up in, and where I spent much of my spare time exploring the Pilbara desert with my dog, Ally. Driven by a desire to contribute to society, I joined the Western Australian Police Service at age 19 and served for 14 years as a police officer and crime analyst. I transferred to the Australian Federal Government in 2005, where I worked for five years as a Senior Transport Auditor in airport counter-terrorism security for city and regional airports.

Tema: What inspired you to get into the photography business?
Alex: Photography became a serious passion in 2006. On occasion, I'd used a point-and-shoot camera and film camera until then. But, when a friend showed me the scope of digital photography, I was hooked. Never one to do things by halves, I spent every spare moment studying photographic literature, and practicing the craft on my own pets, those of friends and family, as well as farm animals and wildlife. I tried a few other genres, such as landscapes and people, but, animals enthralled me more than any other subject. On a work trip to the stunning Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean Territories, I photographed a group of giant blue clams at a rustic breeding facility. Mesmerized by the vivid colours of the clams, I waited patiently to get the right shot. One of the images received positive feedback from family and friends and I felt encouraged to enter it into several major photographic competitions. I was thrilled (and a bit surprised!) when it won several major awards. This led to gallery representation and print sales of the image – and was the first time I felt like my photographs had value. Meanwhile, I converted a small office at the back of our property into a photographic studio and spent every weekend filling requests for pet portraits. What started as a weekend hobby was growing so much, I found myself working up to 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was crazy busy, but thrilling to gradually see the emergence of a viable business in which I could merge my two passions - animals and photography.

My two aims through photography are:
1) to show, through images, how beautiful animals are, and
2) to support, promote, and endorse animal rescue organisations.

Image by Erica Serena

Tema: Can you please tell us a bit about Houndstooth Studio?
Alex: I left my full time government role in 2010, and rebranded my business name to 'Houndstooth Studio'. Since then, so many incredible experiences and opportunities have opened up. In addition to Houndstooth Studio's continued growth, philanthropy is a huge focus in my life. Since I started photographing animals, I've worked with over 60 animal rescue charities, shelters and sanctuaries all over the globe.

Tema: Why did you decide to primarily focus on animal / wildlife / pet photography?
Alex: Initially, I photographed a range of subjects – people, pets, still life, landscapes. I quickly realized all types of photography weren't as easy as I thought some would be and about 8 weeks in, I started gravitating towards animals. If I was photographing a person and a bird flew past, I would automatically focus on the bird. I realized I needed to follow the path of pursuing animal photography. One day, when I returned home from a family photo shoot, I had more pictures of ducks and dogs at the location, than I did of the family. I was getting the best results with animals and I was enjoying it the most, so I decided that I would photograph what I loved and focus my lens on all creatures great and small.

At the time, some photographers expressed concern over this being a valid photographic subject. I didn't care. It was what I wanted to do, and at the time, I didn't have an intention of making it my career. I just wanted to be around animals. Now, I photograph over 1000 Perth pets each year and am so glad I trusted my gut, and heart.

Tema: What would you say are some of your most favourite animals to photograph?
Alex: I love photographing all animals in the studio (domestic pets, wildlife, birds, reptiles, wildlife, fish, crustaceans, amphibians) but dogs would have to be my favourite. They engagement I get back from dogs is amazing and it's safe to say that I'm a crazy dog lady! I photograph over 1000 beloved pet dogs each year in my studio, and on my global travels, the natural focus of my lens is always the local dogs.

Tema: How long (typically) does it take to get 'the shot' that's ready for public viewing / purchase?
Alex: Animals can be nervous around strangers. I connect to my animal subjects by firstly making friends with them. With dogs, I find this particularly easy by offering them select toys and treats. Once I've won them over, they think I'm the best person they've ever met (until the treats run out!), and I then pretty much let them do whatever they like – I'm a bit like the naughty aunty, who doesn't have any rules and lets the kids do what they want (ha-ha). If I ask them to sit and they don't, I move on and let them stand. If they want to lie down, they can, and I never move, push, or pose them into position – they do it organically for me, depending on what I'm asking them for or how I'm using food rewards. I find this is the best way to get relaxed and happy shots.

During my studio shoots, I'm sitting about a foot away from each subject, and I maintain their focus on me for the entire session. I work fast and can often get all the images I need in a 20-minute shoot – I will sometimes take 50 images, sometimes 300 and from those, I select the best 30 to share with my client. I work in split seconds, catching those moments I see as an image. I find that dogs can be the easiest subjects, but also can be the hardest. They are very aware of their environment and the fact that they are in a new place, with a stranger, surrounded by flashing lights, with a large object (camera) pointed in their face. I work with many dogs that have come from abusive backgrounds, and to relax them, I move slowly and deliberately and make sure I don't trigger any of their anxieties. If they are known for biting the backs of heels, I never show them my heel. All dogs are welcome in my studio and I photograph many dogs who have been aggressive to people, and I'm proud to say I've never had a problem with any of them because I'm able to call on my dog handling experience and knowledge and ensure they trust me and have lots of fun. That really is the most important thing. Some people call me a dog whisperer, but to me it's using my body language and energy to relate to them in an easy and non-threatening way. Cats are the opposite of dogs to photograph - they can be grumpy from being woken up to have photos or from having to go in the cat carrier, but they tend to stay quite still, or play with a toy or two once they arrive. Everything else I find easy to work with, from mice, to ferrets, horses, birds, farm animals, and reptiles. They tend to all cooperate for me fairly well.

Sample works by Alex Cearns

Tema: What do you think helps your style of photography and capturing images stand out from the rest?
Alex: I love negative space and tend to use it a lot. I think it adds to the emotion and mood of an image if used right. I also like to only focus on my subject by shooting against block backgrounds, mostly black. This means they complement any dιcor and don't go out of style. I have a few signature shots I always try to nail as well – a half face (cropping the subjects face symmetrically in half, emphasizing one eye only), a Zen Dog (where my canine subject has their eyes closed and is looking happy), looking down (the subject bows their head – this makes dogs look very young and can make an older pooch look like a puppy again), and of course, a high five or paw shot if they have it in their trick repertoire. I use Profoto studio lighting and by working in a studio, I can always control the temperature and ensure there are minimal distractions.

Tema: How do you get the adorable furbabies that you photograph to 'pose' for you? Would you like to share some techniques with us?
Alex: I find most animals very easy to photograph but I think that's something which has progressed over the years. Dogs are generally very happy to be fed treats by their new favourite Aunty and most are won over easily. I welcome all animals into my studio, even aggressive dogs, those who have suffered a traumatic past, or those who are fearful of strangers. With these photo shoots, I use a decade of knowledge about body language and movement (mine and the dogs) and I don't push any boundaries or set off any of their triggers for fear or aggression. I love these photo sessions, as I have to call on a whole other skill set, and their owners are often overjoyed as they didn't believe their dog could ever have a successful, event free photo session. People often worry that their dog won't sit still, but it's a misconception that they have. I shoot fast and get a lot of fun expressions and poses from dogs who are active. Cats are generally the opposite of dogs to photograph. They arrive at the studio in a bit of an indignant mood because they had to go in the car and in the cat crate. I'm their least favourite Aunty, ha-ha, and they don't want the treats I offer or have much interest in the toys. I photograph them in a black box (3 ft x 3ft) and that (combined with the dark and quiet studio) makes them feel safe and they eventually lie down in there or wander around and give me a few poses.

Tema: Where have you taken your works (around Adelaide / SA / Australia / overseas)?
Alex: My photography has taken me to so many wonderful locations. Overseas I've led photography tours to India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, the Antarctic and the Galapagos Islands. I've also been to Bali, Laos, and the United States on work-related trips. Locally I've visited every state in Australia to take photographs. Some of my fave destinations are within Australia. One of the places I love to visit is Kangaroo Island in SA. I'm heading over in February 2019 to do a reconnaissance for a landscape and wildlife photography workshop there with my good friend Tony Hewitt in October 2020. Aimed at photographers of all levels, for 5 days, attendees will be presented with incredible landscape and wildlife photography opportunities on stunning Kangaroo Island, under the guidance of myself and Tony. We've been working closely with an experienced Kangaroo Island tour company to create a unique and exciting itinerary. Several of the places we visit are situated on private property and aren't accessible to the general public. We will also be travelling in comfortable off-road vehicles, perfect for reaching those hard to get locations. Full details of the tour are including the itinerary, travel dates, pricing and inclusions are listed AT For 5 days, attendees will be presented with incredible landscape and wildlife photography opportunities on stunning Kangaroo Island, under the guidance of myself and Tony. To ensure the best experience, the tour group is limited to 12 people. There are currently 6 places remaining.

Tema: What can people anticipate from attending your event?
Alex: My event is called "From law maker to image maker" and goes for 140 minutes, including a Q&A hosted by Julia Wilson. Photography is the art of visual storytelling and every image has three stories attached to it. There's the one created by the viewer, the one intended by the photographer, and the actual circumstances involved in the image capture. Working with animals can be chaotic and unpredictable. Often, there's as much going on behind the scenes, as there is in the final image. I'll be sharing the inspirational and amusing stories behind my animal photography images, how I captured that quirky expression if there was a degree of difficulty or danger involved in getting the shot, and the distractions happening around me the time. It's a fun, engaging, upbeat event, suitable for all ages.

Tema: I also read that you are an avid philanthropist - what encouraged you to pursue that path?
Alex: I photograph for dozens of organizations who rescue dogs. If I could share one message with a wider audience, it would be that you can find any shape, size and breed of dog at a rescue centre. Many pet stores who sell live animals source puppies from puppy farms, so purchasing that cute doggie in the window from a pet store is likely to mean you are supporting an industry that factory farms dogs. There's no need to buy a dog from a store these days.
Twenty years ago, many dogs in rescue were there due to behavioural issues - not all, but some were given up just because they barked or dug holes. Hardly reasons to surrender a pet but people didn't have the training resources available (or the dog nous) that we do today. 

Currently, there are many new reasons people surrender their dog to a rescue group and sadly some people place a different value on animals than others. The arrival of a new baby, not being able to devote enough time due to work hours, divorce, moving house, moving country, shedding hair etc. are all reasons animals are given up. Some surrenders are more circumstantial than behavioural, and even the dogs who are surrendered because of behavioural issues receive retraining and assistance. They often overcome their issues or are rehomed with people who can support them, and work with them. In my experience dogs in rescues are no different to any other dogs. Any family can find the perfect fit through rescue. Shelter dogs are screened for behaviour and temperament so it's very easy for a shelter to match the perfect dog to your home. Some dogs are great with other dogs, and animals like cats. Others prefer to be the only pet in the household. Through their testing, organisations can determine whether a dog is ok around food, is reactive to other dogs, or is a barker. All of these behaviours can be rectified through consistent training but knowing all these things n advance lets you make an informed choice as to who you adopt and whether a particular dog is the right fit for your family and lifestyle. Oh, and most importantly of all, you'll be saving a life. My 3 adorable rescue pets are all here today because a rescue organization took them in and saved them from terrible circumstances. They are my daily sources of laughter and joy and I'm so grateful for their love.

Photo by Brett Canet-Gibson

Tema: What are some animal charity organisations that you are an ambassador to, that you'd like to highlight?
Alex: I donate 40% of my work time to animal charity organisations, who work tirelessly to improve the lives of rescue animals. I've spent several years working with Free the Bears Fund and have photographed for them at their Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India sanctuaries. Back home in Australia, I've supported over 40 different animal organisations, including the Victor Harbor Penguin Centre. Other groups close to my heart are Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary and Brightside Farm Sanctuary in Tasmania, the Dogs Refuge Home of WA, Greener Pastures Farm Sanctuary, Guide Dogs WA, and Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation centre in Perth, and AMRRIC (Animal Management in Remote and Rural Indigenous Communities) in the Northern Territory. I provide my photography services free of charge, donate gift vouchers and stock images, and help raise funds and awareness for the groups I support.

Tema: You are also a writer! What do you primarily like to write about?
Alex: I have five published books and one co-authored book:
Mother Knows Best – Life lessons from the animal world (Penguin Books Australia)
Joy – A celebration of the animal kingdom (Penguin Books Australia)
Things your dog wants you to know written (by Laura Visaritis – Penguin Books Australia)
Zen Dogs (Harper One USA)
Perfect Imperfection – Dog portraits of resilience and love (ABC Books / Harper Collins)
For the love of Greyhounds – Adopted Greyhounds and their happy ever afters (ABC Books / Harper Collins)
Every book has a particular theme and encourages people to see the beauty in animals.

Tema: Being a photographer, a writer, a public speaker, an animal rights advocate, and a seasoned traveller (to name a few) - how do you juggle your many incredible commitments and passions at once!?
Alex: To juggle all of the different hats I wear in my business I have to be highly organized. I have many systems and processes in place to ensure I meet deadlines, maintain the standards of my customer service. I also provide consulting services for people in small businesses and am passionate about helping others achieve their business goals based on the model which has worked for me.

Tema: What do you do during your down time (provided you find time for that)?
Alex: In my spare time, I enjoy kayaking with a group of good friends. It's a wonderful way to get out into nature and to unwind after a busy week. We all get time to chat, and time to just paddle along, and a stop for coffee in the middle of our kayaking is always a highlight – and a motivator! When I'm home, I love reading. 99% of the time I read non- fiction only, mostly natural history books on animals and science, and autobiographies. I often have a pile of books next to my bed, and read several at once, until I commit to finishing one. I also enjoy spending time with my dogs Pip and Pixel.

Tema: How did you get involved with the Adelaide Fringe (AF)? How did you score the venue National Wine Centre as the home for your event this year?
Alex: I was approached by the wonderful Alys from Epodcentral Presents, after she attended a few of my speaking engagements in Perth. Alys is experienced in producing shows for Fringe festivals and stand-alone events and I was thrilled when she asked me to consider a show at Adelaide Fringe. She's been such an incredible supporter of my work and has made the whole experience of planning my shows incredibly easy. She also secured the National Wine Centre as my venue which is fantastic. I can't wait to present there, in my home city.

Tema: If you live elsewhere at present, do you tend to visit Adelaide much during the year?
Alex: I currently live in Perth but was born in Keith, SA. Growing up, I lived in many different South Australian towns (Tarlee, Burra, Freeling, Gawler, Meningie, Clarendon), before moving to Western Australia when I was 11. All of my family lives in SA, and I often visit to catch up with relatives in Glenelg and Victor Harbor.

Alex Cearns' event From Law Maker to Image Maker will be showcased at the National Wine Centre on March 16 and 17.

Book your tickets here and feel free to connect with Cearns via her social media platforms: Facebook // Instagram // Twitter // official website
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Why? Learn about Alex Cearns' passion to photograph our beautiful animals and wildlife!
When: Adelaide Fringe season
Where: National Wine Centre
Cost: $27 - $35
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