You may have seen them at the airport or perhaps at the train station. Standing on all fours, these furry friends are undeniably cute, but don’t be fooled, they mean business. Raised to protect and serve these service dogs are trained from a young age to sniff out bombs, narcotics or other potential threats. Recently through an assignment with the New York Times photographer Bryan Meltz had a chance to meet these services dogs in an unexpected place-prison. The dogs who are trained for around a year split their time between The Canine Performance Sciences Program at Auburn University and The Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Georgia where they are partnered with inmates who train them. The program is reported to not only boost the morale of the inmates and provide them with a sense of responsibilty but to improve overall behavior. You would expect that photographing in a prison would have it’s challenges but Bryan was pleasantly surprised.
I had never worked in a prison before and I was nervous about what sorts of boundaries I needed to stay within, what sorts of questions could I ask, would I have the kind of access I was hoping for or would I be sent to a room with two inmates and their dogs and given twenty minutes to make a photo. I’m always looking for something authentic and intimate with my photography, and I wasn’t sure how that would be possible given the constraints of working in a prison. But the staff and the prisoners were so welcoming and eager to share the positive impact that this program has created that it really wasn’t about me, it was about the dogs, and that was exactly what I was hoping for.
This project was a perfect fit for Bryan who descibes her style as documentary and enviormental portraiture that centers around social issues. The photo editors were really excited as well and ran the series on both the web and in print with an image on the front page. All in all Bryan says she learned a lot from the experience.
Things are never what you expect them to be. I had a preconceived notion about what this experience would be like, about how I would be treated as a female photographer in a men’s prison, and none of that ended up being true. One of the men told me how these dogs don’t judge them, they don’t care what they’ve done or why they’re serving time, they exist with them in the moment. Dogs have always been an integral part of my own life, so to be able to work on this series, one that I hope to continue in the months and years to come, is really an incredible opportunity. Being a photographer gives you access to parts of peoples lives you would never have, and I’m extremely grateful to do what I do.
Bryan plans to return next month to do some follow up portraits and multimedia.
Meeting these guys, and hearing how this program has impacted their lives is just incredible and I feel like doing a short video piece would really help tell this story in a way that the images alone cannot. As soon as I left the prison that day of the shoot, I couldn’t wait to return.
To see more of Bryan’s work visit bryanmeltz.com