A Photo Homage To The Working Class ... Of Animals : The Picture Show Charlotte Dumas takes pictures of animals, but these aren't your average cat photos. Her new series focuses on horses who bring slain soldiers to their graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
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A Photo Homage To The Working Class ... Of Animals

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A Photo Homage To The Working Class ... Of Animals

A Photo Homage To The Working Class ... Of Animals

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And if you are just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley.

On any given day, there are about 20 funerals happening at Arlington National Cemetery outside the nation's capital. The majority are simple graveside burials. But for those soldiers who have earned full honors, there's a little something extra. The casket is brought to the grave by a team of horses pulling a caisson. That's the two-wheeled vehicle holding the casket.

These caisson horses are the unlikely subject of a new portrait exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And the mastermind behind the series is 35-year-old Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas. Emily Friedman of member station WAMU went with Dumas to the horses' stables and brings back this story.

EMILY FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: This is the first time Charlotte Dumas has seen the horses in broad daylight. She shot her series around 2 or 3 in the morning. And though the horses look a little different than she remembers, she walks through the stables like she's visiting old friends.

CHARLOTTE DUMAS: Sergeant Amos here, they're like - they're huge.

FRIEDMAN: Some of the horses are returning from their most recent mission, a funeral. The horses seem sad, though I couldn't quite tell you whether the horse is sad or I'm feeling sadness for the horse. Dumas says that question is what drives her work.

DUMAS: I do think that portraits of animals, specifically, give room for reflection of one's own emotions. The presence of animals in general in daily life can be of great importance for us to process what is happening around us, because they are a different species, but they are living like us.

FRIEDMAN: Over the course of a year and a half, Dumas sat with her tripod at the edge of the stalls. She often photographed from the horses' eye level, a technique widely used for portraits of people.

DUMAS: If I would portray you, you have like, for the moment that I portray you, maybe 75, we'll just establish some sort of contact or an intimacy that is needed, in my opinion, for a good portrait. Like, if you were to photograph me and would come very close to me, I would feel uncomfortable. But I would just stay put because I know you're the photographer and this is probably how it's done.

And with animals, it's just very clear. If you come too close, they'll just let you know right away. And if you - but if you stay too far off, it doesn't become a portrait. It stays a picture. It's always about that distance.

FRIEDMAN: In Dumas' photos, we see the horses after the day's work is done, resting in their stalls. Their white hair glows against the shadowy background. There's a dreaminess to the images, which Dumas achieved without extra lighting or zoom lenses but simply by waiting.

DUMAS: I photographed the horses when they were - at night when they were falling asleep, which, to me, also emphasizes a vulnerability because they cannot just, like, get up and run away.

FRIEDMAN: Corcoran curator Paul Roth says these portraits buck a long-standing rule of fine art.

PAUL ROTH: One of the things that I was first taught when I learned about photography is that you should never photograph an animal because it would invite people to have a preconceived notion, usually, typically a romantic notion that we all experience daily when we see viral videos of cats.

FRIEDMAN: None of these photographs begs to be an adorable screensaver.

ROTH: Charlotte is really interested in getting beyond that. Their whole working life - eight funerals a day year round - is about carrying soldiers to their graves, and doing so in a way that recognizes the importance and the value of the sacrifice that they've made. It's a really powerful thing. And so it does seem almost as though they are accompanying spirits.

DUMAS: I think we need them to help us to understand what's going on. Not just, like in, what their function is literally but also in the sense of comfort. In a way, they are the witnesses of our existence.

FRIEDMAN: Dumas has made a career of photographing animals. She first gained international attention for her series on the dogs that worked to find survivors in the rubble of the Twin Towers. Those dogs, and theses horses, she says, have a lot in common.

DUMAS: Because the dogs, being right there right after the attacks, and the horses being involved with all the funerals that are partially also due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it came full circle, in a way. I think it's really important for our sanity to understand what our relationship is with them, not just how we treat them, what they mean for us and what's really their place in the world and what do we mean to them.

FRIEDMAN: Charlotte Dumas' photographs question how much we really know about animals' inner lives. And in asking those questions, she says, there's a lot we can learn about ourselves. For NPR News, I'm Emily Friedman.

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