The Year of the Dogs: An Interview with Photographer Vincent J. Musi

In his latest book, National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musi celebrates the unique personalities of man’s best friend.

Vincent J. Musi
Photo credit: © Callie Shell

Even if you don’t know him by name, chances are that you’re familiar with photographer Vincent J. Musi’s incredible work. For over 20 years, Musi traveled the world photographing a variety of subjects for National Geographic (and made the cover 12 times), cultivating a specialty in animal photography along the way.

Nearly two years ago, Musi ended his travels to spend time with his wife and son at home in South Carolina. He opened The Unleashed Studio, focusing on fine-art portraits of dogs using the same lighting and photography techniques that he picked up during his career.

© Vincent J. Musi / The Year of the Dogs

Aside from his popular Instagram account, Musi’s photographs, coupled with clever and captivating “dogographies,” can be found in his latest book, The Year of the Dogs, now available wherever books are sold. We recently interviewed Musi to find out more about the project and get some of his top photography and storytelling tips.

1. What inspired you to pursue photography?

I did not grow up with any substantial wealth, nor was I exposed to travel as a child. Photography was a way to see the world, meet people, and get paid to do it.

2. Did you grow up with pets?

Yes, there was always a dog around our home. My brother lived next door and he always took in injured squirrels, unwanted birds and kept a dog or two as well.

3. You’ve photographed an incredible variety of subjects over the years—including all types of animals. What made you decide to focus on dog photography in this phase of your career?

I didn’t plan on it, it just happened. I do enjoy photographing the common more than the exotic, but do it in such a way that it hasn’t been considered. I see dogs, like many animals, as mysterious and majestic, full of personality and character. That’s behind every photograph.

4. What do you think it is about dogs in particular that gets people excited? 

I think the relationship between humans and dogs–going back to the beginning of domestication–is a great and complex story that just keeps evolving. It tends to be very personal and hard to express for some folks, and I kind of take license to explore that territory in a way that is sincere but also takes some liberties with reality.

© Vincent J. Musi, The Year of the Dogs

5. Your studio is in the back of a pet food store. How did you come upon that location?

It was, it isn’t anymore, but a friend of a friend of a friend offered it and I took them up on it. For the last 2 years, we’ve been in a huge, old Sears warehouse from the 1940’s. We are looking to relocate again, as the building has been leased to a distillery.

6. How many dogs did you photograph for this project? What’s the farthest they traveled to get photographed by you?

There are 100 or so in the book, more that didn’t make it, and we are still working at present. The farthest was Los Angeles, I think—around 2,500 miles. We’ve also had dogs come from as far as Canada, the Mexican border, and Illinois.

7. Would you say that dogs are easy animals to photograph, or do you face similar challenges photographing them as you do other animals (like a big cat or 9,000-lb. elephant)?

They are all difficult, honestly. I can say that dogs are not easy for me. The challenges are different, but there is a commonality in that you can never really make an animal do what you want them to do just because you want them to do it. 

8. What inspired you to start accompanying your photos with “dogographies,” and how do you make them so captivating? Is it by observing the dog, speaking with the owner, or a little bit of both?

My son and wife pressured me to do more than just show the photograph. I said, “Nobody cares about other people’s dogs,” but I was wrong about that. The stories are really a response to the dog and their backstory mixed with some observation from the photo session and perhaps a memory from my past, like mood rings, boyhood crushes or failed wiffle ball games.

© Vincent J. Musi, The Year of the Dogs

9. A follow-up to the last question: how are you able to weave some of your own personal stories into your dogographies? What influenced you to take that more personal approach?

It was a leap of faith, really, but I don’t know where it came from then or where it does now. I look at these photographs and they trigger some emotion that comes spilling out of my subconscious. 

10. What are some particularly heartwarming or funny stories from your experiences at The Unleashed Studio?

Every day I get to work with my wife, son, and some of the nicest dogs and people. I don’t have to ask for permission or get on a plane to do it, and I get to make people happy by doing this. They laugh or cry or connect in a way that is very humbling to me. It’s become a responsibility in way, as I know people are counting on this to show up in their feed.

11. You said in your TEDx talk, “Everything we learn about animals teaches us everything we don’t know about ourselves.” What has this project taught you about dogs and the dog-human relationship? What have you learned about yourself in this process?

In the TEDx talk, I was speaking of cognition, a subject I covered extensively at National Geographic. The relationship between humans and dogs is pretty rich territory for a lot of different interpretations and directions. I’m not really doing journalism here, so I can have more fun exploring this stuff and taking a more fantastical approach. It’s far more fun.

12. What has been most surprising to you about the reception of this project?

How personal it has become. I’m actually kind of an introvert, but I share my family, life, and other people’s dogs with 350K people on Instagram, and when I post on National Geographic’s Instagram account, I’m reaching 120 million people.

It’s worth noting that these people share their lives and dogs back with me. This is wonderful. I get hundreds of emails, messages and comments every day and I read and answer each of them in some way.

© Vincent J. Musi, The Year of the Dogs

13. Did you have a specific goal in mind when you started this project? Do you think you achieved it?

My goal initially was to keep my house and not have to travel so that I could spend time with my son and family. So far, so good!

14. Do you have any photography or storytelling tips to share with our animal welfare audience, all of whom are working to get adoptable animals into their forever homes (and most likely just using iPhones)?

I need some tips myself, I’m terrible with an iPhone! I would say that dogs spend most of their time looking up at us. I’m always at their eye level when I work. As for stories, most of the ones that I read maybe go too far in cute and not enough in grit and hardship and reality. I think those are valuable components to the work.

15. Any suggestions on must-have photography equipment or distractions (like specific treats or toys) for those on a budget?

Another person is the most valuable thing you can have. I could not do what I do without my wife. After that, a suitable background and decent light. I would never suggest anyone do what I do with lights and a studio or you’ll go crazy.

16. We all have tough days on the job. What keeps you positive and motivated to do more great work?

You are very kind. I’m motivated by a love and respect for the craft of storytelling. I also have a kid who wants to go to a nice college, and I’m motivated by that too!

Feature image credit: © Vincent J. Musi / The Year of the Dogs