Tammy Swarek’s Fanciful Photos Bring Hope to Shelter Dogs

This photographer uses costumes and headpieces to create one-of-a-kind images.
By: Monica Weymouth
Tammy Swarek photography - Rascal

Photography isn’t simply Tammy Swarek’s profession—it’s her passion, as well. So when her family’s medical needs made it difficult to continue shooting events, she set out to find a new way to get behind the camera and satisfy her creative itch.

Shelter dogs, as it turns out, are extremely flexible, understanding clients.

“I’ve always been a dog lover, and I was always upset by how sad animals look in shelter photos—scared and behind bars, almost,” says Swarek, who hails from Arkansas. “My camera was just sitting there in a bag and I thought, ‘There has to be a way to help.’”

The Union County Animal Protection Society (UCAPS) was more than happy for an extra hand. Like most shelters, resources are scarce—the chronically underfunded El Dorado rescue operates almost entirely on donations, and most of the small staff’s time is devoted to the bare necessities of caring for the homeless, abused, and neglected animals. Photos are usually snapped on cell phones, then quickly posted online in hopes of finding an adopter. Lighting, costumes and composition simply aren’t part of the equation when there are cages to clean and medications to administer.

Admittedly, Swarek wasn’t entirely sure how her new volunteer project would go, and there was certainly a learning curve to shooting portraits of dogs at a crowded shelter. But even from day one, Swarek’s Shelter Pets Project was a success.

Tammy Swarek - Penny

“It’s just amazing how much the dogs enjoy the attention,” says Swarek. “We walk them first, we play, we get to know their personalities. We really want that to shine through—the longer that someone spends with a photo, the more likely they are to connect and respond.”

Tammy Swarek - Ms. Smith

Big Dave is one of these personalities. Returned to the shelter for stealing a roast off the dinner table, he already had a couple strikes against him. But Swarek capitalized on the sneaky beagle’s sticky paws, playfully dressing him up in a chef’s outfit and portraying him as a discerning foodie. Although Big Dave is still waiting for a family, his chances of finding one are looking much brighter now that his adoption profile features an engaging, professional photo that celebrates his goofy side.

Tammy Swarek - Big Dave

“The response has been overwhelming,” says Swarek. “Several of the dogs have had multiple applications.”

Butters found a home quickly after his shoot—immediately, in fact. After the session, Swarek felt a deep connection and adopted the sweet-eyed hound herself, a decision that turned out to be life-changing not only for Butters, but for Swarek’s family. Despite having no specialized training, Butters immediately bonded with Swarkek’s son, who has autism and epilepsy. Sensing something was wrong one night, he awoke Swarek, alerting her to a potentially dangerous seizure.

Tammy Swarek - Butters

“I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if Butters didn’t wake me,” says Swarek. “A lot of people think it’s important to own a pure-bred, $800 bulldog. I would love to see the day where it’s popular to adopt a dog that needs a home. There are truly amazing dogs waiting in the shelter.”

The Union County Animal Protection Society relies on donations to care for its resident homeless, abused and neglected animals. To contribute, visit www.ucapsshelter.org.

All images courtesy Tammy Swarek.