Like many animal lovers, photographer Sharon Lee Hart is concerned about the mistreatment, abuse, and neglect of animals. But for her book, Sanctuary: Portraits of Rescued Farm Animals, Hart decided to tell a different kind of story about animals that have seen hard times. “Folks are disturbed by images that depict abuse and torture that can occur on factory farms, and I don’t blame them. It is unbearably disturbing, but I think those types of images are essential because they inform the public about the horrors that are occurring,” Hart said via email. “I admire those that make those difficult images, but I wanted to approach this from another angle and create portraits that people don’t want to look away from.”
Hart was in a residency program in Michigan in 2009 when she heard about Grateful Acres Animal Sanctuary, a facility that rescues and rehabilitates farm animals. The sanctuary was only open to the public a few times a year, but Hart persuaded the owners to let her take a look, and she ended up spending eight hours there on her first visit. Inspired by that experience, Hart ultimately visited 10 sanctuaries over the course of a year, taking powerful, intimate portraits of the lucky animals that have survived harrowing experiences. She donates a portion of her print sales to those sanctuaries.
Hart’s photographic approach reflects the seriousness of her endeavor and the respect she harbors for her subjects. Upon arriving at a sanctuary, she’d sit on the ground with her Hasselblad 503 and wait for an animal to approach her. “I felt I won some sort of prize when an animal that looked shy and timid would come over,” Hart said in a phone interview. “The lower perspective helped, especially with the smaller animals. They’re little, and if you’re looming over them they can’t see your eyes. They don’t know your intentions.”
In this way, Hart had some pretty interesting encounters. At Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in New York, she met Duncan, a goat who’d escaped a live meat market with another goat. Duncan “seemed like a mischievous little brother” and immediately stole Hart’s mittens out of her back pocket. At United Poultry Concerns, Amelia the turkey followed her around for the entire duration of her visit. Hart also witnessed many unexpected friendships. At Catskill Animal Sanctuary in upstate New York, Hart wandered into a barn and found Rambo the ram and Barbie the hen sleeping soundly together. During her entire visit, the pair seemed to be stuck to each other’s side. “I do want folks that view my photographs to see that these animals are sentient creatures with emotions and intellect. I experienced first hand the range of personalities that exist in farm animals and they are certainly as varied as human personalities,” Hart said via email.