Anat Sweeney’s rescued pit bull Nanook loves peanut butter – he’ll do anything for a treat.
That’s how Sweeney, a freelance Philadelphia graphic design artist and painter, motivated her pet to pose for Chris Sembrot’s recent project, “Humans Kissing Dogs” – just a half a teaspoon of peanut butter was all it took for Nanook to enthusiastically lick her in the mouth.
Sembrot, a local commercial photographer and self-described “huge dog fan,” said he wanted to depict owners and their dogs in a way that hadn’t been done before.
“I’d never seen anything like it so I feel like it was a way to finally shoot dogs and dog owners with their pets, expressing their love for their pets – and not in a contrived way, in an out-of-the-normal environment,” Sembrot said.
Sembrot said he’d seen a few of his friends “literally open-mouth kissing their dogs,” which became the inspiration for the theme. Rather than the typical displays of affection between human and canine, the project took interspecies intimacy to a new level. photographs in which dogs of all sizes licked the inside of their owners’ mouths, resembling a “make-out” kiss.
Sembrot said Sweeney’s photo, the first that he took of the six final photos on his website, is the “kind that stops you in your tracks.” Since he was familiar with the photo editor at the Huffington Post, Sembrot sent his work to the site.
Soon after, the photographs went viral, appearing on BuzzFeed, Perez Hilton’s blog and foreign websites from Finland and Spain, among others.
“I was not expecting to get that kind of reaction,” Sweeney said, adding that Sembrot carefully asked her permission before using the shot he ultimately picked, where Nanook’s tongue is visibly in her open mouth.
While she said she’s seen mostly negative comments from viewers who think the photos are disgusting or weird, Sweeney said “any publicity is good publicity.”
Sembrot said this is the most attention he’s ever received for his work, which he anticipates will help him gain business as more people become familiar with his name as a photographer. He also said he isn’t perturbed by any opinions that the photographs are “just gross,” as Huffington Post user Scottb219 wrote on March 26.
“I think mostly all the comments about how gross it is comes from non-dog owners or people who are taking the images at face value,” Sembrot said. “No one that knows the intention of what it was and what the inspiration was would [think that].”
Still, Sembrot said he wouldn’t kiss his own dog, a boxer and Jack Russell terrier mix named Sadie, or be featured in the “Humans Kissing Dogs” project himself.
In order to find willing subjects, Sembrot said he pitched the idea to an ad agency in Philadelphia to gain support and then turned to a dog grooming business in Fishtown called Groovehound. A friend of Sweeney’s who works at the ad agency recommended that Sembrot reach out to her.
“When he called me he was like, ‘Anat?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the dog whore,’” Sweeney said, laughing.
Sweeney’s husband fully supported her participation, she said, though he did seem “a little disturbed” when he saw the final photo. Though Sweeney didn’t receive any monetary compensation for posing with Nanook, she said that wasn’t what mattered to her.
“I looked it as an artist helping out another artist,” Sweeney said. “We’ve got to stick together, kind of thing.”
Though his intention was to use the photographs as “self-promotion,” Sembrot said he believes the work shows the power of photography.
“I want to continue with the project,” Sembrot said. “One of the women I photographed, her dog needs a really expensive surgery. She did a Kickstarter [campaign] to get money, but now it’s not really enough, so I want to help her out with that. My dog was a rescue so I want to do something to endorse that, and encourage people not to purchase dogs through a breeder.”
Sembrot is working on another ongoing project, titled “Urban Surfers,” at present. Sweeney is also preparing for her own creative endeavor, an exhibit in California for which she’ll illustrate 15 famous quotes.
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @erinJustineET.