Connecting Neighbors Through Our Dogs

BY JANICE MILHEM

Janice Milhem of Milhem Images, Inc. enjoys her walks and travels with her Schnauzer-mix rescue, Mike. Photo courtesy of Janice Milhem

I'm a local photographer and a dog owner with a new book, "Dogs of Ann Arbor's Old West Side." I always wanted a dog. As an adult with a hectic work/travel schedule, it just wasn't fair to leave a dog alone for long periods of time. After leaving corporate marketing, I decided to change my career into a passion of mine, visual storytelling. At Milhem Images, Inc. I help businesses incorporate imagery through use of still and motion photography to tell their story and to convey who they are and what they do. When messaging becomes more visual, it becomes easier for the viewer to digest, understand and recall content.

One day, while traveling across town to purchase bathroom fixtures, I unexpectedly stopped at a pet store holding adoptions. There was this cute little pup. I hemmed and hawed. He was lovely. Long story. I didn't come home with a shower head, but I came home with a bundle of joy. Now, four years later, I understand the unique bond we have with our dogs.

After spending several months away from home last year, I was ready to come back and become grounded in my community. I wanted to get to know my neighbors - and what better way than through our dogs. I also wanted to begin to market my craft locally as a professional photographer/storyteller by doing something I really enjoyed. And thus my "pet project" was born.

My initial inspiration for the dog project began a while back during a photo shoot for which I was hired for capturing our Old West Side neighbor, Sarah Okayama's Burnt Toast Inn. While photographing rooms in her beautiful eclectic inn, I began to incorporate her dogs into the compositions. It just made sense to include both her beloved Buddy and Bojangles since they were so much a part of the overall ambiance.

I began photographing more neighbors with their best friends, capturing a particular "moment in time." The idea began to evolve as more portraits were taken. My goal was to capture as many dogs as I could within a particular neighborhood with their primary owners - within the Old West Side. The project's focus was on the dogs. I also discovered a new apartment complex that accepts dogs at 618 South Main across the street from the Washtenaw Dairy. I found a wide mix of mix-breed and pedigree subjects. My aim was to show as much diversity as possible, i.e. ethnicity and generationally. A few owners requested captures of the whole family. Although doable, I declined since this was not the objective of the project. I wanted to keep the series focused on moments shared between dog(s) and one or two primary caregivers.

I set out to photograph dogs and their owners within the confines of the Old West Side, bordering north at Huron, Pauline to the South, Main to the east, and to Bemidji to the west. The result was meeting 70+ households and photographing them with their dogs on their porches. I learned that many owners had stories about their dogs. Some only commented briefly that they couldn't imagine life without one.

Since many of the dogs came directly from the Humane Society, I thought the book might be about rescue dogs of Ann Arbor. I later discovered that not all were technically rescued pups, but some were pedigrees from a long lineage of champion breeds. I concluded, regardless of how and wehre the dogs were acquired, there was a common connection. Someone was rescued. More often than not, it was the dog who rescued their owner - either from loneliness, boredom or lack of routine in their lives. Dogs made them happier people; helped them create family and community; got them out of bed, walking, keeping their owners physically and mentally fit. The project has positively impacted the community - at a recent New Years Day party, many neighbors had mentioned the book and recognized the dogs and owners around town - it gave them a chance to meet new neighbors through a common bond.

The book is timely. Given recent news events all over the world, including right here at home, the project has brought a glimmer of hope and happiness to our lives and our community. I want to thank all the owners who participated and especially the area businesses and individuals who generously made the project possible. They're listed in the back of the book.

"Dogs of Ann Arbor's Old West Side" was recently published and distributed to the dog owner participants. If you haven't seen the book, it is now available for purchase at Downtown Home and Garden, Argus Farm Stop and Literati Bookstore. One third of all book sales will be donated to the Humane Society of Huron Valley. I am happy to say that I have already delivered the first check to HSHV.

Janice Milhem has been an Ann Arbor resident and homeowner in the Old West Side for over ten years. She is a documentary photographer and a strategic marketing expert at Milhem Images, Inc. For more information, visit http://www.milhemimages.com.
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