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May 21st, 2009

Find your niche and photograph what you love — trust us, it always pays off

Posted by liveBooks

We were introduced to Sarah Zemunski‘s photos when she won the Canon-sponsored American Photo On Campus Go Pro contest. While her winning portfolio of dog photos is original and compelling, what we really liked was that she had identified a niche for herself, something she excelled at not least of which because she was passionate about it, and she was still a student (at Academy of Art University in San Francisco). We were eager to chat with her about how she had already learned these lessons that some photographers twice her still hadn’t.
Negative Space ©Sarah Zemunski

Negative Space ©Sarah Zemunski

Miki Johnson: When did you realize you were meant to be photographing dogs?

Sarah Zemunski: In my 3rd year at AAU, I began to get very frustrated. I hadn’t found my niche, and the work I was doing for class was just mediocre. Aside from school, I was working at a doggy daycare. I began taking pictures of the dogs in the play area.  That lead to photographing “The Dog of the Month” for the business. Every month, I would shoot a different dog, and the portrait would go up in the lobby.

At that time I never thought about shooting dogs for school. I thought it might be cheesy, and my pictures were bordering on snap-shots. Then in one class, I decided to present one of my dogs as an assignment. I was hesitant, and I thought people would think it was stupid. But everyone loved it! I got more positive feedback from it than I had for anything else I had done in the class. So I began photographing dogs for every assignment. The teacher of that class, Noel Barnhurst, really supported my work. If it wasn’t for him, and the people in that class, I may not have had the courage to show my dog work.

Since then, I’ve tried to fit dogs into all my classes. For my Architectural Landscape class, I photographed dogs with architecture. I just started photographing other animals this past semester. My teacher for Senior Portfolio, David Wasserman, told me I needed to shoot other animals to make my portfolio complete. At first, I was against it — I only wanted to shoot dogs. But now I am so glad I branched out! I feel the work I have done with other animals is my strongest. In fact, the portfolio I produced for the class was named best portfolio in my school’s Spring Show!

I think you should photograph what you are passionate about. I have always been passionate about animals, but it took me a while to find out I should be photographing them!

King by bushes. ©Sarah Zemunski

King by bushes. ©Sarah Zemunski

MJ: Tell me about how you got into photography.

SZ: As a child, my dream job was to work with animals. Photography didn’t come into the picture until later in high school. Growing up, I never really took pictures, except for snapshots of family and friends. In high school, I took a photography class and I eventually came to San Francisco and took classes at The Academy of Art University (AAU). I have two semesters left before I graduate.

When I first started out, the thing I liked most about photography was framing the shot. I wasn’t too interested in my subject matter. Mostly, I walked around and shot what I saw on the street. For me, it was about how the shapes and lines fit into the frame.

As I advanced at school, I experimented in several genres. For school assignments, I often shot people — I am now remembering how much I hated it! Some photographers are meant to shoot people. I am not one of them. But if I hadn’t spent all that time shooting, my work wouldn’t be as strong as it is now.

My dream photography job five years from now would be traveling the world to photograph animals (all expenses paid, of course!). I want to be known as THE animal photographer. I am interested in working with wild animals — and their trainers. I want to be the Annie Leibovitz of animals. Haha.

©Sarah Zemunski

Zoey, in Sarah's Go Pro winning image. ©Sarah Zemunski

MJ: I have to ask, any funny/poignant stories about working with dog?

SZ: I am a dog-walker, so I have funny dog stories just about every day! The dog I photographed for the Go Pro contest actually ran away during the photo shoot. She is a timid dog, and is very attached to her owner. I felt comfortable enough with her off-leash, but that was a mistake. While shooting, she just started running away, slow at first, then sprinting. She was headed back to her house, since she only lived a few blocks away.

My assistant/boyfriend (thank God he was there!) took off after her. He chased her out of the park, and through the neighborhood. Finally, he caught up to her and brought her back. Zoey was so exhausted from the run, that it made her much more mellow for the photo shoot. Maybe I would have never gotten the shot of her in the ivy if she wasn’t so tired!

Since the photo shoot, Zoey has passed away from cancer. Her owner was thrilled to see my image had won the contest. She feels the image really captures the essence Zoey. I was so glad I was able to provide the owner with pictures to remember her beloved pooch.

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