N.C. — Every week, Shannon Johnstone takes one dog for
a walk to the top of the old North Wake Landfill, a
470-foot peak built from 20 years of Raleigh, N.C.,
a park now, covered with dirt, grass and a polyethylene
for Johnstone, an art professor at Meredith College,
this Kilimanjaro of trash serves as a dark metaphor.
dogs she brings to the top all come from the Wake
County, N.C., Animal Center. All of them have been
homeless for at least two weeks, and some of them for
more than a year.
persist in cages, lonely, confused and threatened with
euthanasia if they can’t get adopted — a
final-option scenario that would send their remains to a
landfill much like this one used to be.
their way to the top, Johnstone photographs each dog
with her Canon 5D camera, capturing them as they graze
on landfill grass and taste the air at one of Wake
County’s highest points. Her pictures are both
haunting and uplifting, hopeful and grim — an
invitation to love and a glimpse at death.
Mistletoe. Julius. Partridge. Momma. Percy. They’re
Johnstone’s landfill dogs: 66 so far. Some found homes
right away. Some returned to their cages. Five of them
like photographing a grandfather in a cemetery. Close to
the edge, nearing the end, the subject becomes more
beautiful as you contemplate its loss.
a neglected pit bull for a pet grows more tempting once
you imagine the injection that can put it to sleep for
the idea grows even stronger when you see the dog as a
happy animal, off for a run on a hill made from other
things people threw away.
art, Johnstone’s work isn’t a gun to your head. She’s
not trying to make you feel guilty.
just wants you to see the heart of the things we often
good dogs," she said. "They just weren’t
age 40, Johnstone brings a loaded resume to this
project, which is taking shape on a yearlong sabbatical
from Meredith. She has degrees from the School of the
Art Institute of Chicago and Rochester Institute of
Technology, and she’s won an armload of awards.
from this project, she has sent her Meredith students
into shelters. Johnstone has also photographed animals
before, during and after euthanasia — a project
undertaken in a city she promised not to name.
galled her that animals are considered property under
the law and that the same branch of government that
operates a landfill is placed in charge of an animal
shelter. Her idea actually came at the suggestion of
Wake County’s former environmental director, except
that he wanted to bring dozens of dogs to the park;
Johnstone settled on the idea of one at a time.
isn’t journalism. Johnstone removes the dogs’
leashes from the pictures with the help of Photoshop.
But her work strikes the same muckraking chord as it
pries up floorboards to let in some light.
started with Firenze, a pit-bull-mix male who got
adopted right away.
put my arm around him," she said. "He wanted
to have the wind in his fur."
came Greyson, a pit bull who is still waiting for a home
13 months after his photo shoot.
came Ali G., who just wasn’t adoptable. He was the
first of the landfill dogs to go.
have a whole spreadsheet," Johnstone said.
Thursday, I followed her and a shelter volunteer up the
half-mile trail, along with Wezzy, a brown-and-white pit
bull who is officially 4 years old, but in actuality is
the way, I learned that Wezzy suffers from a condition
known as "happy tail," which means he wags his
tail so hard that he smacks it raw on the walls inside
has also lost fur on all four of his leg joints, which
can happen when a dog lays on a concrete floor.
he perked up like a dog starring in an ALPO commercial
when Johnstone clipped on his leash; he was ready for
his close-up at the top of a trash pile.
back in his cage now. You could go see him today.