Photographing Your Pet, with Elias Lindqvist

It’s Tuesday when Agnesia Kirsipuu meets Elias Lindqvist in Karlshamn. Agnesia Kirsipuu has been working with the Half-Mast Gazette since graduating from Tartu Art College in 2015. Elias Lindqvist is a freelance pet and animal photographer based in Sweden who has been featured in our publications nine times. The Editors are aware that Elias Lindqvist fathered Agnesia Kirsipuu in 1991 while shooting ringed seals in Estonia. Neither interviewer nor interviewee are aware of this fact, and will not be until publication.

The interview took place overlooking an abandoned rail track and was conducted in Estonian, being the only language both participants were familiar with, and has since been translated into English. 

The words in italics belong to Agnesia Kirsipuu, and those which are not to Elias Lindqvist.

Hello Elias, nice to meet you at last.

Yes, I find it difficult to send emails to people. You aren’t talking to them, you’re telling one machine to talk to another machine, the people are irrelevant.

I never thought of it like that. Should we begin before it gets dark?

Before the wolves come out. Sure.

Is that a thing here? Wolves?

(Laughs) Let’s start.

Alright, so first things first do you have any general advice for people wanting to photograph their animals?

Well the first thing is you’ve got to be very quick. That’s the best way to shoot any animal, to have the camera and you just, you go, because you have one second, that’s it basically. 

Is it about always having your phone or your camera to hand, or more about not worrying about setting up the perfect shot?

Those little moments are more important than anything else, and that’s why I said be quick and ready. Because sometimes the subject matter which is the animal and what it’s doing is far more interesting than what you’re setting up. If you’ve got a funny outfit on the animal or something, if you capture that quickly, then the rest of your photos can just be pulling it off pulling it off pulling it off. (both laugh) But you get that split second when it’s on and when you take that picture, everything else falls in place. It’s really just having it be as quick as possible, and not faffing around because they definitely won’t give you the time.

And so do you think generally for people who are not professionals like yourself it’s better to kind of approach it as a kind of reportage style, capture moments as they happen, rather than trying to set shots up, or do you think that both can work if you want to?

I would say let everything happen because it’s when the actual moment is magical and one you can never recreate. On a commercial side we try to make those moments happen but it’s a good starting place to say right, this is what we want to do, let’s see if we can achieve it. But generally, in that process, that structure, a lot of other magic happens. It’s up to them what happens if that makes sense.

That’s a nice idea actually, that you can start with an idea of the kind of shot you want to take but don’t ignore the other nice little moments which happen within that because you’re so hellbent with, like you said getting the outfit on the animal.

Exactly! Because in the chaos they can make a much better moment, if it’s sitting on the ground and looking at you because it’s a bit annoyed it’s actually an even funnier moment than you had. 

I was going to say that’s probably the thing as an owner you’d look back on more isn’t it. It’s like that’s a really specific characteristic of how they were rather than a posed shot that you’re trying to recreate from something you’ve seen in a magazine or whatever it is. 

You know there’s things I even spot in my own — I have a dog, she’s like a daughter to me — I sit down to watch the TV in the evening and I notice her coming in to sit on the sofa, next to me. And it’s really funny to watch. That’s a very beautiful moment for anyone, capturing that so they’re almost unaware of it and it’s done quickly and it gives you so much more reward. And you’re so glad you caught that moment because you’ll never forget it, and be reminded of it every time.

That’s really nice. Interestingly you mentioned your dog’s characteristics picking up on yours. Do owners often not photograph themselves with their pets and is that something that’s nice to do more of, because you can see that interaction between the two of you or similarities or that kind of thing? 

Oh absolutely. The other day shooting some cats, I know we were talking about dogs, but they were gorgeous Persians. And this parent said to me, I used to shoot their last cat you see, would you like to carry on and continue the stories that you’re telling with these new ones because it’s so nice for us to see the, the continuity and all of that. But it also makes me think, because the husband said ‘I don’t wanna be in it’ and it made me think it’s just as important for you to be in these memories as it is for you to have them.

That’s interesting.

Because we always say I don’t like having my picture taken, dadeedadeedah, but actually – it’s very important in twenty years time, in however many years time, to go oh my god that’s what I used to be like, or my wife. Or child. It’s something that we’ve become very selfish to, it’s about what we want to see in our pets, but actually it’s very important that we can also see what we’ve gone through or how we look. In twenty years it is so relevant, so much more, and those are things we can never bring back. A lot of people get really nervous about their pictures being taken. For example my mother gets very nervous about me taking her picture, she hates it, and I say to her ‘this is the last time you’ll ever look this good’. And she does it, and it’s true – we can’t go back! And that’s what’s lovely about taking these pictures, especially about animals and people who are all close to us, we can’t bring ourselves back to those moments.

I think it’s really interesting it’s not, like you’re saying, it’s not necessarily thinking about whether you look nice in a picture, that’s not necessarily the point. The point is just to capture both of you at that particular point in time regardless of whether you think it’s a nice picture you put on Facebook or whatever. 

Yes we’ve got to stop thinking about Facebook and Instagram all the time, but more what we would like to see later on, what our children would like to see! Not for me, I don’t have them (they laugh) but for myself. You know, if you do find something really beautiful in your pictures then yes you can post it. But that’s not why we actually do these pictures. It’s not about that, we mustn’t get confused about the posting immediacy of it or the historical, something special you know. There’s a forgetfulness in that. That’s important to get our parents and everyone understanding that it’s not always about what people think of you, the judgement of it. It’s purely for ourselves.

black pug wearing striped apparel

Do you tend to take a lot of photos in a shoot? Like you yourself when you’re working on a job as well, do you have to take quite a lot of pictures to get one that’s the right one? Do you think people often think you’re gonna set it all out, take one photo and then that should be a good photo, and actually it requires taking a lot more pictures.

It’s interesting, on a commercial level especially when we’re talking about animals, working with animals you’ve got to be so quick, when you take the one picture, it usually will be the only one. But if you’ve got time, you don’t just stop because you think that’s the end. Certainly I don’t, I like to keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing. There is a point where you say alright that’s enough, y’know. But it’s not about doing the one thing and going well that’s me, I’m done. I always try to find more magic in it, more magic. Because sometimes it can evolve, you might find some more magic that comes up and just pushes you – ‘oh my god that’s so much better now’ – as long as it doesn’t get upset. It’s important to know the balance between pushing too far and being a little bit upset.

Are there ways to get an animal’s attention in a picture? Or do you not even try and do that.

I definitely do try. The thing is with animals that they do their own thing, cats especially. Dogs are a bit different and easier to manipulate. Silly little things we do on set that help them react and a lot of people do sneezing and all of a sudden they’re like ‘what’s that noise’ and that’s something that’s like an industry trick that happens. A lady I work with sometimes starts to burst out laughing and the animal’s like ‘what’s that about’ and sometimes they get excited or they just look at you like bizarrely y’know. Either way what we try to create is reactions and hopefully the best ones. There are little things like (makes popping sounds with his mouth) like that. Especially for me as the photographer I’m the view of the consumer so in order for me to have the direct interaction which is very important for the consumer of that image, and so I try really hard to make noises so that they’re looking directly at me. Because sometimes it feels really odd when the animal’s looking off somewhere else and they’re engaging with somewhere else rather than the actual viewer. And not all images have to have eye contact, but I like to have that interaction.

I think that’s really interesting, the idea, because you tend to think you’d be talking to the animal and things like that but as you say those surprise sounds are probably more effective at getting their attention. It’s kinda trying to integrate the photo into regular life, with games and other playful things you might be doing with the animal anyway. 

Exactly, sometimes they sniff around your camera and pull it down because they want to bite it and it’s that moment. It’s really funny. And every pet owner knows that moment. And those are really special moments you can’t really recreate, they just happen.

Do you have to get down on their level when you’re taking pictures? Where do you position yourself in terms of them, are you getting yourself down to their level on their eyeline?

With kittens generally, the little little ones, they’re on their sides most of the time, I’m always at the level. If they’re not comfortable and you’re this large thing who they don’t know and you’re not engaging with them properly it’s uncomfortable for them. And it’s very easy to tell that y’know. And it’s really interesting as a photographer to realise how much structure you have with other people and some of us don’t socialise in later life. I know it’s controversial but some people don’t think of other people. Others are just so welcoming and warm and just love everyone y’know. There’s quite a – what’s the word – the psychological value of what parents put onto their children, but that’s another subject really. 

closeup photo of brown tabby cat

How do you decide what should be in the crop of the picture, or how can amateurs think about this? Because sometimes you see portrait shots of an animal, but sometimes you see pictures where it’s a real close-up of a pink kitten nose or a big slobbery tongue or something like that. Is it nice to do both and capture all details of the animal.

Absolutely. There are some moments I’ve had, and all animals bellies are so yummy and fluffy. My dog, she had to have her first flea stuff and she had this fluid all down her neck. I remember the moment. You’ve got an image of just her puppy face and the little mournful look he has.

Aww. And is it just messing around and trying different things. I know sometimes it can look like a cropped photo, and sometimes like you’ve just missed off its head or whatever. (laughs) Is there a rule for getting that right or do you just play with it and try lots of different things and seeing what they’re like. 

It’s strange because it’s a bit of both. It’s a lot of trying to play with that, again if you try to recreate a lot of things it doesn’t always matter. The inspiration to make these abstract crops is because you’ve made mistakes before. It can happen accidentally when you’re putting your camera down. You’ve taken a shot and it’s just their tail and you go ‘ooh that’s really nice’. Mistakes are good sometimes and can often add to the – not necessarily emotion – but the idea of time and interest.

I guess it’s the different ways you see your pet anyway. So long as you’re up close to them sometimes it’s like they’re this tiny little being and its capturing those different viewpoints in a way. 

Exactly, and sometimes they’re better off memories. Not everything in life has to be documented. (laughs)

I was going to ask you about that actually. How do you know as a pet owner when to stop documenting and when to just watch moments as they’re coming.

I think you should dedicate some time when you decide what you want documented, whether it’s walktime or when you can have a quick minute. We all have those pictures of our dogs with their heads all soapy in the bath. Those moments will come. We’re doing it so often now we forget how much we are actually shooting. We’ve gotta make sure we don’t overdo it. 

Do you think it’s important to capture the surroundings as they are? Because I was thinking about Instagram; we might think if we’re taking a picture of your dog after a muddy walk and we don’t want loads of junk in the background. Old wellies and weird dog toys. We want the perfect shot but obviously that involves quite a lot of staging of the shot. And I was wondering is it nice to capture what the room really did look like at the time.

That’s a very good question because the thing is when it comes to worry about things in the room that’s because we want to give an impression of immediacy, to make it look pretty. But later in life you actually want to see those old dog bowls that are no longer there, and they give you this reference of time. You know we’re getting a little bit too clinical about the pictures we want to see. Because in ten years time do we want to see what we used to own, and what’s that stupid paint job we had. Do you know what I mean? ‘Oh my god do you remember’, it can be very exciting.

Yeah.

So if you’re in the kitchen and there’s something that’s just sitting in the wrong place, y’know. Move it and carry on but I like the fact that you’re documenting the time and it’s not all about instagram. You’ve got to look at it and feel like this is something you’ll care about later on. 

It’s a balance. It’s okay to take a few posed shots but in the end it’s what’s actually happening in your life.

Exactly, exactly. You’ve got to decide which one you really want.

And the last thing I wanted to ask, is whether either on basic cameras people may have, or on smartphones, any functions or something people who are amateurs tend to overlook but you think are easy to look, to play more creatively with their pictures.

I find something that really helps amateur photographers is – just because I shoot in quite a similar way I like to have my backgrounds quite soft and out of focus. On the iPhone, I’m not quite sure what the angle is because I don’t have one, but they have this function called Portrait. And it’s just a digital thing, but it really takes you back to the moment and that’s really nice as technology – you know people get really nervous thinking we can do photographers jobs and stuff, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the point. We have these tools, let’s do it. No amateur’s going to take my job away from me because I do it every day, and it’s not easy. But it is enjoyable. There’s nothing wrong with making use of this technology to make you happy with your picture. 

I think that’s it isn’t it. There’s a big difference between having a tool and having the skills, knowing how to make a shot and the right way to capture that moment.

It’s really nice, yeah.

Cool. A few last questions I have, but is there anything else you think might be useful as a pointer? 

Umm, let me think about it. I haven’t actually thought about that. Is there anything else? I mean my main thing is to be quick and to make sure you get yourself into some of these pictures, for your children. The technical side of all of that: we have the technology, enjoy it and make sure you document. And that’s all I really have to add to that.

Do you think it’s important to look at pictures as well? Because I always wonder this. Do we all take millions of pictures now but never look at them, aside from the ones you post on Instagram or whatever. Because we don’t really print pictures out anymore, in the same way. I don’t know how many people actually look over those.

Print them. Print them. Even if you just have a box or cupboard somewhere that’s full of five-by-seven prints, even if they’re just from your phone, or from your camera. Just put them in a box. Or put them on a little hard drive disk and put that in the box too. Because you can go back to them. Y’know we take so many pictures now and we wonder are we ever gonna see them again, but you know what, we have a whole chest of all our old photos. There’s nothing better than having that moment with your whole family. Your pet may not still be around y’know. They’re only little things with little lives. You all spend some time doing that–

Scrolling through them.

And it’s so nice to just dip into that box and have a look at, y’know. And then you can put them on your wall or whatever, but just having that moment to feel them again is so nice. We don’t do enough of that, I know we’re all busy. We really need to do more of that.

And it can get lost on phones and harddrives and stuff don’t they. You spent so much time taking pictures but you never spend time sharing the memories with them.

Even the fact that it’s getting printed on paper, it’s not to keep these pictures as long as we can. I remember taking pictures of my dog as a really little puppy and thinking ‘oh my god he’s beautiful’, and about six months later I took a picture and looked back at those pictures and thought ‘oh my god how ugly’ (laughs). It’s amazing your brain, according to how much in love you are. It’s nice to go through that. It’s personal, it’s nothing to do with anyone else. Even my friends will say ‘it just looks like a dog’, but we kind of forget that in a way. It’s all personal.

Thank you very much. How do you want me to credit you in the piece? Is there a specific job title or anything you want me to mention about you.

Uhhh, oh god. Pet photographer. Pet and animal photographer I guess. 

And maybe that you’ve done some shooting for us, some magazines and stuff. 


Yeah, that would be lovely.

short-coated black dog

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