Perfect Imperfection: Dog Portraits of Resilience and Love

A book by photographer Alex Cearns offers gentle lessons for all of us.

Posted Apr 29, 2019

When I first learned of photographer Alex Cearns' book Perfect Imperfection: Dog Portraits Of Resilience And Love I couldn't wait to get a copy and now that I have one in hand and in heart, I can't put it down. The book's description says it all: "These perfectly imperfect dogs have gentle lessons for us all ... Meet special little Vegemite with the permanent wink; Bali Pip, the playful pup who lost her fur; Raul, who takes partial paralysis in his stride; and many more, all seen through the lens of award-winning photographer Alex Cearns. In this inspiring portrayal of difference, Alex captures the intrinsic beauty and spirit; the sweetness, resilience, and strength of 60 perfectly imperfect dogs. They adapt to their unique bodies without complaint, they survive with determination and they live with joy. In the accompanying stories from their best friends, the bond between these endearing doggos and their humans shines through - and sometimes they even save each other. For anyone who's ever loved a dog ..."

Alex Cearns
Jakka
Source: Alex Cearns

I wanted to know more about Ms. Cearns' book and how she went about doing the work that was necessary, so I asked if she could answer some questions about it and gladly she said "Yes." Our interview went as follows.

Alex Cearns
Cover of Perfect Imperfection
Source: Alex Cearns

Why did you decide to publish Perfect Imperfection?'

I’ve wanted to release this book for the past 8 years, ever since I photographed my first perfectly imperfect dog. It’s a dream come true to share these inspirational, determined dogs and their stories with the world in ‘Perfect Imperfection – dog portraits of resilience and love’. One of my most passionate aims as an animal photographer is to capture the adorable subtleties that make all creatures precious and unique. I love every animal I have the privilege of photographing, but those perceived as ‘different’ hold a special place in my heart. These are the creatures who have lost a leg, been born without eyes, or are still showing the scars of former abuse. Most animals with ‘afflictions’ don’t dwell on them. They adapt to their bodies without complaint and they survive with determination. They push on, always, wanting to be included and involved in everything as much as they can, and as much as an able-bodied pet does. The tenacity of animals to overcome adversity never ceases to amaze me. They make the most out of life and from them I have learned so much about always seeing the positive in every situation and never giving up. 

How does it follow up on your earlier work and publications?

All of my books have featured positive images and stories about animals. Many rescue animals are included and my last three books have been exclusively about dogs. And dogs may just be my favorite animals, so I’m very happy to share how much I love them with everyone.

Can you please tell readers about some of the lovely dogs about whom you write? 

I love all of the dogs in the book but Vegemite the cover star is one of my favorites. He is an 8-year-old Japanese Chin x Pekingese and lost his eye when he was attacked by another dog. He had emergency surgery and his eye couldn’t be saved, but thankfully he recovered well and is a very happy boy. On the cover, he is doing a high five which is so cute.

Alex Cearns
Bali Pip
Source: Alex Cearns

Another adorable dog in the book is Bali Pip – she’s on the back cover. I photographed her on Bali after she was rescued from the streets by the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA). She was 7 weeks old and had mange, so had lost her hair. With some love and care her fur eventually grew back and she looked like a small black dog. Her photo was the first image of mine to go viral on the internet. We also held a fundraiser for BAWA and raised $15,000, mostly from selling copies of her photograph as A4 prints. Many people all over the world have her photo framed on their walls and she represented global rescue dogs for HeartSpeak in the USA.

And you can't go past hearing about sweet  Rueben who gets around thanks to a custom set of wheels. He is in the book with his best friend Keisha, who also has wheels. Rueben had always been an extremely active dog who loved running, playing fetch and swimming. At the end of one of his usual morning swims at the beach one day his back legs collapsed and he was dragging his feet.

Alex Cearns
Rueben
Source: Alex Cearns

His Mum rushed him to the emergency vet but he continued to lose function in his back end. After many tests and a week in intensive care, it was discovered he had a bulging disc that had ruptured and punctured his spinal cord. It was touch and go as to whether the paralysis would spread all the way up to his spine to his brain but he’s a fighter and miraculously it stopped just below his shoulders. In the vet hospital, Rueben’s eyes were still shining brightly and he was very excited to see his visitors - he still had a full life to live. Rueben isn’t in any pain and with a wheelchair and assistance to go to the toilet he is a fully abled dog. Nothing can stop him when he gets his wheels on.

What are your major messages?

There are several messages in Perfect Imperfection – beauty is everywhere, the outside is only window dressing, overcoming adversity, inspiration, and that disabled pets give the same love as any other pet, they have value and they deserve the same chance to live full and happy lives.  Personally, the main things I’ve learned from working with these beautiful dogs is that they live in the moment and don’t dwell on their differences. They are cared for by people who love them and they have as much right to live the best life they can as any other animal.

Who is your intended audience?

This book is for everyone who loves or has ever loved a dog, plus those who relate to the inspiration and perseverance shown by these motivating canines. To date, the global response to Perfect ‘Imperfection’ has been incredible.  So many wonderful people have contacted me to share stories of their own perfectly imperfect pet and to support the images. These animals are so inspirational, and their desire to live is so strong that they touch people in their hearts.

Do you have hope that more and more people will rescue dogs in need?

Definitely. If I could share one message to a wider audience, it would be that you can find any shape, size, and breed of dog at a rescue center. Many pet stores who sell live animals source puppies from puppy farms, so purchasing that cute doggie in the window from a pet store is likely to mean you are supporting an industry that factory farms dogs. There's no need to buy a dog from a store these days. Twenty years ago many dogs in the rescue were there due to behavioral issues - not all, but some were given up just because they barked or dug holes. Hardly reasons to surrender a pet but people didn't have the training resources available (or the dog nous) that we do today. 

Currently, there are many new reasons people surrender their dog to a rescue group and sadly some people place a different value on animals than others. The arrival of a new baby, not being able to devote enough time due to work hours, divorce, moving house, moving country, shedding hair, etc. are all reasons animals are given up. Some surrenders are more circumstantial than behavioral, and even the dogs who are surrendered because of behavioral issues receive retraining and assistance. They often overcome their issues or are rehomed with people who can support them, and work with them. In my experience dogs in rescues are no different to any other dogs. Any family can find the perfect fit through rescue. Shelter dogs are screened for behavior and temperament so it's very easy for a shelter to match the perfect dog to your home. Some dogs are great with other dogs, and animals like cats. Others prefer to be the only pet in the household. Through their testing, organizations can determine whether a dog is ok around food, is reactive to other dogs, or is a barker. All of these behaviors can be rectified through consistent training but knowing all these things in advance lets you make an informed choice as to who you adopt and whether a particular dog is a right fit for your family and lifestyle. Not forgetting to check out any perfectly imperfect dogs up for adoption too – they have a lot of love to give and most importantly of all, you’ll be saving a life.

I have 3 adorable rescue pets.- Macy the cat who is 8 years old, Pip the Kelpie / Greyhound mix who is 7 years old and Pixel the greyhound who is 5 years old. They’re all here today because a rescue organization took them in and saved them from terrible circumstances. They are my daily sources of laughter and joy and I’m so grateful for their love.

What are some of your current and future projects?

I'm currently working on new book ideas and planning a large photo exhibition in May, as well as working on a new photo tour series called Island Light, visiting islands of Australia with acclaimed landscape and fine art photographer Tony Hewitt. I'm also dedicated to helping rescue organizations promote their valuable work, and have a project in the works to promote different animal charity groups in my city. I can't wait to share it with everyone.

Thank you, Alex, for a most inspirational interview. Each time I pick up Perfect Imperfection I find myself laughing, tearing up, and resisting putting it down. All dogs thank you for your efforts, and I couldn't agree more with you when you note that when we rescue dogs, they also can help to rescue us from whatever it is we need to be saved. I hope your book will enjoy a broad global audience. 

Note: Dogs Today Magazine in the United Kingdom calls Australian based photographer Alex Cearns “One of our greatest dog photographers in the world.” Alex is the Creative Director of Houndstooth Studio and specializes in capturing portraits that convey the intrinsic character of her animal subjects. When it comes to her photography, she is passionate, compassionate, fun, caring and committed and it would be apt to describe her as a “crazy dog lady”. Alex photographs for engaged pet lovers, corporate brands in Australia, the USA, and the UK, and for around 40 Australian and International animal charities and conservation organizations. Her images have been published extensively across Australian and International media, in books, magazines, and ad campaigns. She also is the recipient of over 250 awards for photography, business, and philanthropy, and in 2019 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) from the Council for the Order of Australia for her service to the community through charitable organizations. Inspiring others with her joy of working with animals, Alex’s philanthropy and passionate advocacy for animal rescue have earned her high regard among animal lovers and a strong following on social media. She is an ambassador for Tamron Australia, Tamron USA, Profoto, Spider Holster, BenQ, and Seagate. You can find Alex online at Hounds Tooth Studio.