Two pairs of amber eyes dart in and out of view from the shadow of a tower of wooden pallets, squinting in response to a partially chilling blast of wind. The eyes eventually manifest into a scruffy black cat and an orange tabby that eye Elizabeth and Jason Putsché with a wary curiosity from inside a darkened warehouse.
The married couple kneels on the ground, aiming their camera in the cats’ directions as they coo and inch closer to them. The orange tabby is startled and runs off, but the black cat watches them with interest as Jason takes a series of shots in which the cat seems to be posed against a weathered-looking brick wall, like a seasoned model.
Photographing feral cats in this positive light is a project that the Putschés have undertaken as part of an organization they founded called Photographers for Animals. They aim to bridge the divide between humans and animals, using photography to tell the stories of these forgotten animals while raising awareness about animal-related causes, such as trap-neuter-return and responsible pet ownership.
Elizabeth worked for PETA in Norfolk, VA and had always had a passion for promoting animal rights. Jason has been a professional photographer since 1998, and their paths crossed at the Fell’s Point Festival, where Jason had a booth displaying his work. The photographs involving animals caught Elizabeth’s eye and she commissioned Jason for some cat photos. They fell in love, got married, adopted a few pets, including a Pomeranian with alopecia, and combined Jason’s photography skills with Elizabeth’s talents for videography to expand Photographers for Animals’ impact.
They find feral colonies through word of mouth and talk to the people who live or work around them, such as this warehouse’s owner, a man in camouflage with a scraggly beard named Dave, to determine a good time to come shoot the cats. The industrial look leads to interesting composition and the “different textures create a look that is very Baltimore,” Jason says.
“We kind of adopted this colony,” Elizabeth adds.
Dave whistles to the black cat, still posing as if he’s not next to a pile of garbage, who comes running towards him and starts purring.
“I like ’em,” Dave says of the cats who have colonized his warehouse.
The Putschés use these pictures and a documentary about their work that is in production to combat the negative ideas that most people haveabout stray cats colonies. Elizabeth describes the stereotype—dirty, sickly cats living in trashcans and digging up fish bones while disgruntled business owners struggle to get rid of them.
“We’re so familiar with the process in Baltimore and with so many people who are involved with it, so we wanted to tell a more accurate story of the cats and how much people actually care for them,” says Elizabeth. “You’d be surprised at how many people are like Dave.”
“We show up, start exploring it, try to be quiet and casual and peek around corners, and so forth, always looking around and pretending not to be interested in the cat I’m interested in,” Jason says of their process.
Elizabeth watches as Jason crouches down, his chest almost in a puddle of murky water that’s dripping from the ceiling.
“Another thing that we try to do with our photography is we try to get down on level with the cat, instead of shooting down at them because it gives a more accurate portrayal of how they see things instead of it being from a human point of view,” she says.
As they talk, they call the cats “community cats” rather than strays or ferals, a reflection of the respect they feel for these cats.
Elizabeth chuckles as a chunky calico makes a beeline for the food Dave is setting out and says, “man, she’s gotten fatter since the last time we were here. At least she’ll be warm in this cold.”
Another mission of their Photographers for Animals organization is to create a directory of animal photographers and videographers that will provide their services for free, or at a discount, to nonprofit organizations.
“A good picture on Petfinder can determine whether a cat gets adopted or not. You can talk and give a speech but just being able to see an animal in whatever circumstance creates a much more compelling story, but a lot of nonprofits aren’t able to afford photography services,” Elizabeth says.
The couple follows Dave and the black cat into the damp warehouse. Squeaky meows echo throughout it, punctuated by a series of clicks from Jason’s camera shutter as Dave unloads another bag of cat food.
Jason is being led to a back alley by Dave, who is excitedly showing a new litter of kittens. As they’re walking a thin tortoiseshell cat is weaving between their legs.
Through a pile of junk metal, he can see some kittens rustling and playing around and gets into position, camera perfectly level.
“It’s really rewarding because you can go into some back alley that looks like nothing to us but then you see there’s a whole world back there and once you spend some time there and realize it’s not ugly at all. It’s their home.”
To see more of Photographers for animals’ photos, go to citypaper.com/kittyfolk