A picture speaks a thousand words

Ever wonder about the story behind that beautiful, and now iconic, photo of a homeless man with his German Shepherd? Here we gratefully republish an article to follow our Helping the Homeless article from The Campbell Centre for the study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada with their permission…

In Issue 21 of CCSAW News, our cover story “Comfort at a Cost?” describes the work of Dr. Jason Coe, Assistant Professor in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, who is studying the relationships and welfare of homeless youth and their pets.

The article features an incredibly touching photo of a man resting with his German Shepherd, generously provided by Pets of the Homeless, which is mislabeled as being taken by Ana Muller. The photo was actually taken by Kirsten Starcher who, in her own words, explains how this poignant photograph came to be.

I play bass in a Vancouver-based rock band called ARCTIC. I play bass in a Vancouver-based rock band called ARCTIC. In 2006, we were performing in Toronto, and my bandmate, Marcus Martin and I had some time to wander the city. As we walked down Queen Street near Spadina, we noticed a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk, cross-legged and leaning against a building, a German Shepherd nestled into his arms as exactly as a puzzle piece.

We paused and looked, and Marcus said quietly, “I wish I had a camera.” I had mine along, but I’ve always been uncomfortable taking photos of strangers – most of my photos are landscapes, close-ups, interesting shapes – and this man with his dog seemed so vulnerable.

Marcus urged me to take a shot, but, shy about it, I shook my head and we started walking again. Still, the scene tugged at me, and after a moment won me over; I turned back and crouched quickly to take their picture. I still felt strange about it – I wanted to give him change, but they seemed so perfectly balanced and he looked so exhausted, I couldn’t bring myself to disturb them. The day continued, I posted the photo on Flickr along with my other pictures from the tour, and filed it all away in the back of my mind as another interesting passing moment in life.

Years later, it still amazes me how this one tiny action, which almost didn’t happen, has had a ripple effect I never would have predicted. Pets of the Homeless found the photo and asked to use it in a newsletter in 2007, and that set a wave in motion.

People started writing to tell me how much the photo affected them. More charities have asked to use it in their writings; artists have asked to paint their own versions of it; a musician wrote a song about it. I received email from a woman in South Africa who found it on a flyer on the beach and was deeply moved. One of the artists planned to give a percentage of his gallery’s earnings – for a month! – to a local homelessness charity, by way of appreciation.

I am in awe of you all. Reluctantly clicking that shutter, I never expected to make these kinds of connections with people all over the world.

I don’t know the rest of the story. I don’t know what happened to the man or to his dog. I’ve seen people arguing online about whether I should have taken the picture, whether maybe he didn’t want to be found, whether I’ve been profiting from it (only once did I receive a small honorarium, and gave half to a Vancouver charity). I don’t know the answers, I don’t think there’s an absolute right or wrong, and I have no desire to debate it.

The overwhelming response from people has been gratitude for giving them a moment to think, to appreciate what they have, and to love the people and the pets they have in their lives. I was fortunate enough to make a fleeting observation that happens to have resonated deeply with others, and it’s given me a different perspective on how minor things we do in our lives can have a wide impact.

Thanks to all of you for your own warmth and appreciation; thanks to Pets of the Homeless for making all this possible.

First published in CCSAW News, Issue 22. Kindly republished with permission.

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