Moscow-based photographer Anastasiya Dobrovolskaya is not your typical "pet photographer." Her trademark photos look like something out of a fairytale, but everything is real—from beautiful and unique people to breathtaking landscapes, and a variety of animals you wouldn't expect to pose alongside people. Foxes, tigers, owls, snakes, horses, goats, anything you can think of is featured in Dobrovolskaya's incredible portfolio, including the most-wanted bear model, Stepan, who was rescued as a cub and raised by loving humans.
In July of 2018, she started taking photos by accident that turned into a wondrous career. After three failed attempts at photography, giving up trying, and finding her way to photography again, she received a message from a woman who wanted a photo shoot with a mini pig and a rooster. Although she had never photographed people with animals and didn't have much experience altogether, she took on a challenge (who wouldn't?) and fell in love. In a week, she photographed an owl and a fox, then a horse, and it kicked off from there with some of her photos going viral online. It was enough to quit her job and pursue a career in commercial photography.
The 30-year-old photographer takes dreamlike photos that capture the magical bond between animals and humans and show how beautifully diverse, yet similar we are.
"In my work, I want to show the beauty of animals and their similarity to people. I try to find common features between people and animals so that animals become more respected by people and people will do their best to minimize the harm they do to nature. Moreover, my photoshoots emphasize the beauty of people, even if this beauty does not fit into the existing stereotypes," Dobrovolskaya writes on her website.
Anastasiya Dobrovolskaya told Bored Panda more about her mission as a photographer: "I am inspired by people and animals. The main goal of my work is to show their uniqueness, to emphasize their external and internal beauty and individuality. I try to achieve this mainly by comparing their appearance. For example, I like to photograph people with albinism with white animals, redhead people with animals that have red fur, and so on."
With her aesthetically pleasing photos, she wants to draw people's attention to how much people and animals have in common. And if a person looks like an animal, it means they are a part of nature and can't be judged or characterized as less attractive based on unique features.
"You wouldn't call a fox ugly because of the spots on its face, would you? So why should a girl with vitiligo be considered ugly?" Dobrovolskaya pointed out.
Another point the photographer wants to highlight is the welfare of animals: "If an animal can be so much like a human, then its life, desires, and interests should be valued no less than human ones."
Dobrovolskaya invited us to the behind-the-scenes of her magical photoshoots that can sometimes take much less time than one could imagine.
"Each photoshoot includes three stages: planning, shooting, and editing the best photos. The planning can take from 20 minutes to several months. I have to come up with an idea, choose a model, clothes, location, discuss everything with the owners of animals, my designer, the makeup artist. But sometimes it takes literally 5-10 minutes between the idea of shooting and its implementation. Usually, the duration of a photoshoot does not exceed 20-30 minutes. In exceptional cases, it takes 1-2 hours. Even traveling to the location takes much longer. Many people don't believe it, but my most famous photoshoots took about 15 minutes. All I have to do is place the models, animals, and choose the right photo angles. The only problems that can arise are the weather conditions (the right light is extremely important for good photographs) and the need to wait for the animal to set the right pose.
The final stage is editing, which allows you to bring photos to the desired result. Usually, one photograph takes from 20 minutes to several hours."
We asked the photographer what's the most challenging and the most rewarding about working with animals.
"They fill your life with something very kind and very real. All their actions and emotions are genuine. Before I started taking photos with animals, I had no idea that there could be such a close connection between humans and animals. It is still surprising to me that 'wild' animals (bears, wolves, deer, foxes, tigers, etc.) can experience such strong affection and trust in humans. Many people accuse me of using animals, that animals suffer during photoshoots, and so on. But they don't even know how far they are from the truth. Thanks to my work, I live in a world where absolutely sincere and incredibly touching things are happening. Perhaps if everyone saw what I see through my work, the world would become much more kind."
Naturally, when animals are photographed in a rather unnatural habitat, people are very concerned about animals' safety, so we want to clarify that no animal was harmed in the process of creating these photos. Dobrovolskaya told us about her animal models, most of which are rescued, and working with them in more detail.
"Since only those animals with a certain character are involved in the photoshoots, the process is almost always very comfortable.
Many people who see my works believe that the animals are on drugs, that their teeth are pulled out, and so on. And I understand that such thoughts are born for a reason. But sometimes when animals are adopted by people, they become part of their families and their lives.
Almost all large animals live in the countryside, in spacious areas, in specially equipped enclosures with regular walking. Each animal feeds on the basis of its species. For example, owls eat mice, tigers eat raw meat, Stepan the bear loves condensed milk.
In most cases, the animals were rescued from poor conditions (for example, Stepan and the tiger Chanel were bought out from zoos), from fur factories (foxes, arctic foxes, lynxes), some were abandoned by the owners, and so on. But the most important thing is that absolutely all animals were born in captivity and under no circumstances can survive in nature without human participation."
"Not all animals are allowed for contact with people. If the animal does not make contact, has health problems, and so on, it will in no case be allowed for photoshoots. For example, Stepan is a unique bear with amazing character, who in his 28 years of life has never even growled at people. All animals participate in photoshoots without sedation. Leashes are needed to ensure safety because any loud sound can provoke stress in the animal.
You may have noticed that during shootings, animals almost always eat. Food is the main way to indicate to the animal that the photoshoot is a safe process, as well as its praise for doing certain actions (this is how foxes are taught to kiss people: a piece of chicken for a kiss).
Are photoshoots harmful to animals? The socialization process is extremely important for any domestic animal. The less an animal living in captivity is afraid of people, the more comfortable its life will be (a banal visit to the veterinarian will be much easier and safer for both the animal and the doctor if the animal is not afraid of people). Therefore, photoshoots are very often used as a socialization tool. In addition, during the shooting, the animal most often stands/sits in the forest and eats, and does it for an extremely limited time."
Anastasiya Dobrovolskaya told us about her most memorable photoshoot so far. It appears to be the most viral photoshoot of three girls holding three foxes of different colors. The photographer walked us through the idea, process, and meaning behind the shoot.
"Initially the idea for this shoot was not so 'global.' This was the period of my creative growth when I especially enjoyed playing with color. So I decided to take a photo of a blonde girl holding a black fox and a brunette girl holding a white fox. But it seemed boring to me and I decided to add a ginger model and a ginger fox. And the dresses of similar colors. I don't remember how long the planning took, but I remember that the final idea came to my mind when I was standing on the escalator, going down the subway, and the photoshoot itself took about 15 minutes.
Many people think that the main point of these photos is to promote the ban on the use of fur. But actually, it is not. There is such a meaning, but it is in all my works in which fur animals are involved. The meaning of this particular photoshoot is deeper. It shows the harmony within one person and equality between different people regardless of their appearance, environment, preferences.
Each girl has three colors: hair color, dress color, and fox color. The color of the hair characterizes her appearance, the dress is what each girl consists of (beliefs, thoughts, values), the fox is her environment (friends, relatives, family). Thus, the presence of different colors on one model suggests that completely different things can be combined in a person. And the presence of such different people next to each other creates a harmonious and beautiful picture and indicates their equality. In addition, the colors intersect with each other, which means that even the most diverse people always have something in common. And in conclusion, the uniform color of nature shows that no matter how different we are, we, in any case, exist in the same world."
Dobrovolskaya told us about her road to success on social media. The photographer now has an astonishing 179k followers on Instagram—an audience that has become a source of endless support, energy, and inspiration.
"I have been actively involved in portrait photography since spring 2018. Until the end of 2019, I had a rather small audience on Instagram—about 4 thousand people, but everything changed literally overnight when a photo with three foxes went viral. In the morning, I woke up and saw that a huge number of people had followed me on Facebook and Instagram. After 5 months, about 130 thousand people were following me, and a year later this figure became more than 200 thousand people in total. This skyrocketing audience scared me a lot because I'm not used to being the center of attention. In fact, I'm still very shy, so I rarely show myself in posts or stories.
I get tremendous support from my followers. People from the USA, Argentina, Italy, Iraq, Australia, South Africa, and many other countries of the world follow my work. It's just incredible. Every day I receive a huge number of very kind and sincere messages. People write that they dream to get to know me personally, dream of taking part in my shootings, invite me to visit their countries. Sometimes it seems to me that I am dreaming all this because even 1.5 years ago, I was an ordinary employee of a research institute and was engaged in photography only on weekends.
I don't even know how to express my gratitude. I am still very embarrassed and do not know how I deserved such attention. But it inspires me a lot and charges me with incredible energy."