Pet-owners experience a different type of New York City through their pets, and we thought National Walk Your Dog Week was a perfect time to check in with someone in the know to describe what the life of a NYC dog is like. Documentary dog photographer, Milla Chappell, the daughter of two veterinarians, captures that special something in her “Day in the Life” photography sessions with real NYC dogs and the people who love them at Real Happy Dogs.
In addition to photography and writing , Milla also works with local rescue groups to photograph and share success stories of rescued dogs in order to raise awareness about the importance of adopting senior, handicapped, and abused animals.
How did you get involved in dog photography?
I actually started taking dog photos when I was a wedding photographer. Many couples brought their dogs to engagement sessions and weddings, and of course, those were always my favorite! I started Real Happy Dogs with the hope that people might see the value in having photos of their dog-kids in the same way that someone might want photos of their human-kids. Turns out, they absolutely did.
You describe your dog photography as documentary in nature, can you explain? What is your process?
I was trained in a type of photography called photojournalism, and this is how I approach my dog photography. In general, my photo sessions are very unposed, as I want to document life as it truly is. I typically start the session in the dog’s home so I can photograph him or her playing with toys, hanging out on the couch, relaxing on his or her favorite dog bed, etc. We then take a walk around the neighborhood or visit any of the family’s favorite dog-friendly spots. Every once in a while, we stop and take a posed photo, but generally I just photograph the family interacting naturally.
In addition to photography, you are also a writer. Can you tell us how you became interested in writing?
I have always enjoyed writing. In fact, my degrees were in English literature and linguistics and I took many writing classes in graduate school and always thrived in these classes. For many years, I focused exclusively on photography in my career, but when I started writing stories to accompany the photos I was taking, I saw a great response from followers! I am so thankful to have a career that allows me to enjoy both artistic outlets and I am always looking for more opportunities to write.
Both your parents are veterinarians, how did this influence your relationship with animals?
My parents’ career was foundational to my relationship with animals. I learned everything I know from my parents, as they devoted their lives to caring for animals and the people who love them. I grew up working in their animal hospital and became comfortable with all animals of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Additionally, I learned to interact with all types of pet owners, which is something I am very thankful for.
You now live and work in NYC but you’ve lived in many places. Is there anything different about photographing pets in NYC?
Absolutely. Here in New York, most people don’t have yards or fences, so we spend more time walking, exercising, socializing, and enjoying our dogs in public settings such as restaurants, parks, and the streets. There is a much more social aspect to dog-life in NYC, and I think this element is really special. When I walked my dog around town, it allowed me to interact with the people who stopped to talk to him, and when I photograph dogs, I almost always have people stop us to ask what we’re doing. I love walking, enjoying, and photographing dogs in public spaces.
Do you have a favorite NYC pet stories or two to share?
My own dog’s story of transitioning to NYC life is my favorite story. Turk had a very hard adjustment to big-city life, and some of his quirks included an inability to poop, separation anxiety, and depression inside a small apartment. But with time and care, he slowly became himself again and his transformation was incredible! I love sharing his story in order to encourage other people to persevere as they make changes in their dog’s life. I have countless other amazing stories of dogs I have photographed – maybe I can share more of them in the future!
How did you come up with the name “Real Happy Dogs”?
I wanted a name that captured the spirit of the dogs I was photographing. I chose the word “real” because my photos are unposed and natural and capture dogs in real life and “happy” because dogs have an everlasting positive spirit. I think this name perfectly captures what I want people to think of when they see my photos.
What inspired your “Day in the Life” series on your Real Happy Dogs blog?
My “day in the life” dog series was actually inspired by day in the life sessions that I used to do for families and their human-kids. I love really spending time with people and allowing the photos to happen naturally. I love the natural, unrushed nature of these sessions.
Do you have any pets now? If so, can you tell us a little about them?
About a month ago, we lost the second of our two boxers, so we are currently without any pets. Our first dog Tuco passed two years ago of a brain tumor, and our sweet Turk had a common boxer heart disease. We really miss having a dog in our home, but we also have a new human-baby, so she keeps us busy for now, and I get lots of dog snuggles and kisses every day on the streets of NYC.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am so thankful for my job, both for the people I meet and the dogs I get to photograph. Dog people are truly special, and just as my parents did, I am fortunate to get to spend time with them. Thank you for asking me to be part of this feature!
Connect with Milla Chappell and Real Happy Dogs on social media!