Sitting down with Richard Phibbs, the conversation doesn’t center around iconic brands or magazine covers he’s photographed, and he doesn’t name drop any famous celebrities. He certainly could, considering his photography career has been, by any definition, very successful. Richard has produced breathtaking and intimate portraits of athletes, actors, and politicians, and his short film, “The Turkish Wrestler,” won the award for Best Documentary Short in the 2016 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards. His work can be seen in advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and Calvin Klein, as well as on the covers of publications such as Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair.
The focus of our time together, however, had nothing to do with his many notable accomplishments. Instead, we discussed his intense desire to use his talent and passion for photography to ease the suffering of all living beings.
“I’ve always had a strong connection with animals. Seeing animals in deep distress, I can’t just walk by without trying to help,” says Richard, whose career travels have brought him face-to-face with the global disgrace of cruelty to animals. “That’s what got me started; the cruelty that I saw really left me feeling heavy-hearted and helpless. When I say cruelty to animals, I don’t just mean dogs and cats, but also to camels, horses, donkeys, and elephants. It is heartbreaking how they are treated. I want to make change through the power of photography. That is my love, and I believe in the power of a single image.
“My love of animals has always been a part of me, and I’m incredibly moved by all of the beautiful animals on the planet but completely saddened by the way that we treat them. We don’t treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Those two words, dignity and respect, were repeated again and again throughout our conversation, and they really get to the heart of Richard’s photographs. Looking at his images, there is an authenticity and uniqueness captured in each subject, no doubt the result of Richard’s deep respect for all living beings and his recognition of the interconnectedness and dignity inherent in all life.
Capturing the Spirit in His Subjects
I asked Richard what it is like to photograph so many well-known subjects. Does the person’s public persona color his perception or influence his approach? He says no. “I’m not thinking about who the person is, about their past or what they’ve done. I’m looking at them simply as a human being. Every subject is a being with a spirit and a soul, and I am trying to take a picture that reveals what makes that being special.”
Richard continues, “When I’m taking a picture of a dog, or a horse or a human, it is the same process. It’s all the same. I’m just waiting for that moment where I feel something. I feel it physically in my body. I move around, waiting for the eye contact or the tilt of the head, then I feel something. I feel the spirit of that being.”
That spirit is captured beautifully in “The West,” a collection of Richard’s photographs documenting the North American West. In these photographs, Richard brings out the softness and almost delicate beauty of a region better known for its rough and unforgiving terrain.
Horses are prominently featured in this collection, highlighting the intimate connection between horse and rider. Born and raised in Calgary, Richard has always been around horses. His love for horses and respect for their spirit manifests through his excitement when it comes to photographing them. “Horses are all different, of course. I love photographing horses, maybe more than anything. I feel like it is an honor to take their picture. They are such beautiful beings. The big horses are such massive beings, almost like magic.”
When photographing horses, Richard says, he searches for angles and keeps moving until he feels the essence of that horse. Whether he is capturing images of a horse, a cowboy on a ranch, or a member of the Stoney Nakoda tribe, Richard searches for a sense of authenticity. To achieve that, you have to do some exploring and reach beyond the surface. “Whoever it is, I want to give that being dignity.”
‘All living beings are of value’
For the past seven years, Richard has worked with the Humane Society of New York to photograph the animals living there, many of whom have been stripped of their dignity, neglected, and abandoned.
“I have taken portraits of the animals at this very inspiring no-kill shelter, that works to find every animal a loving home. There are so many dedicated people there who will do anything to help these animals find their forever home. They rescue them from unimaginable suffering and help them find happy lives. The goal is to get everyone to adopt an animal instead of shopping. All the shelters are so full of animals; they all need homes.”
Looking through the pictures of the array of animals, it seems as if Richard gains their trust, despite their traumatic pasts, and reveals each animal’s individual personality. He explains that patience and, ultimately, respect above all else is key.
“They bring the dogs from the different floors to an exam room. They are frightened; they don’t know what is happening with their lives. The animal comes into the space, and we sit on the floor. We let the animal investigate and do their research, then we start the process of taking their picture. We try to be quick, because it can be scary for them. It is through the editing where we find the one photograph that shows the spirit of that animal.”
"I believe in the power of a single image."
When asked what he hopes to achieve through his photography, the answer is simple: “Enlighten people to the value of animals.” When we see all living beings as having inherent value and dignity, our mentality shifts.
It is a philosophy of life that cannot exist in a vacuum, but rather demands action. Richard’s message here is pretty straightforward: “If you see a suffering animal, stop and do something. All living beings are of value. I’ve seen horses that are just skeletons or donkeys that are tied up without any shade and no one says anything; no one does anything. We have to be the one to do something.”
If you check out Richard’s book, “Rescue Me,” you can see exactly what he means. It is a collection of portraits he has taken of the dogs from the Humane Society of New York, each one a single, powerful image capable of changing an individual’s life. In every picture, we can see another living being who is so much like us. We can see a fellow soul who has experienced hurt and betrayal but at the same time has an enormous capacity for love and a desire, for happiness and peace. And while a single person can’t alleviate the suffering of all the animals in this world, we can certainly reach out and make a world of difference for one.
“This is what I have discovered: we are oftentimes so overwhelmed by all the suffering that occurs on this planet. But if we see something wrong, we can take the first step and do something, maybe even by just asking a question. If you take the first step, you might be amazed how many people will help you. You can start a snowball effect of goodness and positivity. You will get other people around you to start helping, and together you can come up with a solution.
"There are solutions, but someone has to take that first step. It takes one person to make the intention. Maybe we look at a suffering or abused animal and think, ‘there are millions of situations like this all over the world.’ But, what matters is what is happening right in front of you, right now. If you see a dog on the side of the street, and you know he is suffering, why not do something to help? It is amazing the miracles that you can make happen around you.”
Check out more of Richard's work with the Humane Society of New York, here.
All photos by Richard Phibbs.
Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo
Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.