As a photographer in New York City, Winnie Au has worked with names as big as Coca-Cola, Google, and Facebook, but it's her smallest (and furriest) clients that have made all the difference in the lives of dogs in need. Her ongoing photo series Cone of Shame borrows the vibrant and colorful aesthetics of her advertising work to help raise awareness for rescue dogs and to garner funds for their urgent medical needs.
For the series, Au enlisted the help of costumer designer Marie-Yan Morvan to design a collection of unique and fashionable cones, reminiscent of the typical "cone of shame" that dogs wear after surgeries. Through Kickstarter and social media, Au has used these portraits to ask for donations to New York City's Animal Haven Shelter. The results are a playful and humorous collection of portraits that are as adorable as they are helpful to those furry friends in need.
Here, Winnie Au speaks with BuzzFeed News about what goes into making each portrait and how her own experience as a pet parent has motivated her to help others:
This series is meant to take some of the shame out of the cone of shame. I’ve always noticed how sad and ridiculous dogs look when they’re wearing a cone, so I wanted to take that sad moment and twist it into something beautiful and majestic instead.
The last dog I had was a corgi named Tartine. She was wonderful and perfect, of course. Sadly, Tartine got sick about a year and a half into us owning her. She had throat cancer, and it was devastating.
We were at the vet constantly, taking her to chemotherapy and trying to do what we could to save her life. We had pet insurance, but the medical costs were crazy. Without insurance we would have spent tens of thousands of dollars. So this experience led me to think about the high costs of taking care of a loved one. When you’re trying to give your dog its best life and best care, the last thing you want to do is to make a decision based on finances. I want to help other dog owners and animal rescues find that cash when they need it.
A lot of people I know have bought their dogs verses adopting because they wanted a very specific breed, what most don’t realize there are rescues dedicated to specific breeds. So if you are obsessed with bernedoodles, you can adopt one. Of course, I love mutts too, and you can rescue an adorable mutt also. The most important thing to me is that your dog and its age, energy, and vibe fit your lifestyle.
There are so many great rescues out there who can help you find the best pet for you. In America alone, there are 1.6 million dogs waiting to be rescued every year. If those dogs don’t get rescued, a lot of them end up euthanized. I just want to stress to people to adopt when you get your next pet as there are so many great dogs out there ready for a new home.
I actually had this series in my head for almost five years prior to me actually shooting any images for it. Like a lot of things and ideas, it was something that just popped into my brain and I filed it away as something I wanted to do when I had the time to work on a personal project.
One day, when I was ready to start shooting the series, we made a few mood boards of different ways the concept could be executed. It happened to coincide with me working on an editorial job with costume designer and stylist Marie-Yan Morvan. I thought she had the perfect aesthetic for the direction I wanted to go in. Everything sort of clicked, and I approached Marie-Yan about working on this series together. She was into it, and so the very fun collaboration began.
For the cones, I would come up with a concept for each shot — usually I either had an idea for a cone and we matched up a dog with it, or I had a specific dog in mind and we matched a cone to it.
For example, for Penelope’s cone the inspiration was an image of a white sea urchin. I sent Marie-Yan some sea urchin photos and a color palette, and then I would ask her, how can we make this into a cone that is safe for a dog to wear and looks like this? She came back with a brilliant execution, which was to create the cone out of drinking straws.
With Calvin the Komondor, we wanted to create a cone that mimicked the dog’s fur texture. So my mood board had different yarn and fuzzy fabric textures on it. We would print out thumbnails of the backgrounds, colors, dogs, and textures to see what worked best together. So ultimately the design was something I collaborated on with Marie-Yan, and she did all of the building of the cones.
To be clear, the dogs featured in the Cone of Shame have not recently had surgeries. They were all dogs photographed in good health who were comfortable wearing a cone. It’s very important to me for my subjects to be comfortable on set and that we’re not stressing our animals.
You expect them to be a little confused or disoriented from wearing them, but some dogs really seemed comfortable in them and really owned it when wearing them. Kyrie the Weimaraner was so comfortable that she fell asleep while sitting up wearing hers — it was really cute. And Darcy really does look like a regal painting in her image. There’s so much personality that comes through from each dog, even with them wearing a cone.
Sadly, I recently learned that Kyrie the Weimaraner had passed away. I’ve photographed many dogs over the years, so unfortunately a lot of them have eventually “crossed the rainbow bridge” as they say. One of the things that I’m happy for is to be able to have given each of these owners a memory that they can treasure. Just like humans, I think each of these dogs deserves their moment in the sun, and I’m always happy to be the one to bring that to them.
I’ve been really surprised and pleased that so many people have connected with this project. I created this series in my spare time on the weekends over two years, and many people worked really hard on it with me in order to execute the images. So it’s one of those simple things in life — that when you work really hard on something, it’s nice that people appreciate it.
I’m hoping that the more the images are shared around the world, the more we can spread the message of supporting rescue dogs and donating to funds like Animal Haven’s Recovery Road fund.