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Martin Usborne

MUTE: the Silence of Dogs in Cars

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I was once left in a car at a young age. I don’t know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside Tesco’s, probably for fifteen minutes only. The details don’t matter.  The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back: in a child’s mind it is possible to be alone forever.

Around the same age I began to feel a deep affinity with animals – in particular their plight at the hands of humans. I remember watching TV and seeing footage of a dog being put in a plastic bag and being kicked. What appalled me most was that the dog could not speak back. It’s muteness terrified me.

I should say that I was a well-loved child and never abandoned and yet it is clear that both these experiences arose from the same place deep inside me: a fear of being alone and unheard. Perhaps this is a fear we all share at some level.

The images in this series explore that feeling, both in relation to myself and to animals in general. The camera is the perfect tool for capturing a sense of silence and longing: the shutter freezes the subject for ever and two layers of glass are placed between the viewer and the viewed: the glass of the lens, the glass of the picture frame and, in this instance, the glass of the car window further isolates the animal. The dog is truly trapped.

When I started this project I knew the photos would be dark. What I didn’t expect was to see so many subtle reactions by the dogs: some sad, some expectant, some angry, some dejected. It was as if upon opening up a box of grey-coloured pencils I was surprised to see so many shades inside.

I hope that these pictures are engaging and perhaps a little amusing. I want to show that there is life in the dark places within us.

I will stop writing now and you can stop reading. Words can only get us so far. After all, we are all animals.



Martin Usborne was born in London in 1973 where he still works and lives (with his miniature schnauzer, Moose). He trained in architecture, then philosophy, then psychology, then 3D animation before checking his compass once more and finally settling on photography. Phew. Martin’s current work consists mainly of portraits, both human and animal, and he is particularly interested in capturing the relationship between the two whether directly (when both appear in the frame) or indirectly (as in the case of the dogs in cars, where the human’s role is implied). He strives to make his work poignant but also a little playful – he feels there is too much unremitting sadness in contemporary art photography . He has published one book, about an old man that has only once left East London, and another, about what it is like to be a dog in the recession, that is coming out in April 2011.


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Martin Usborne


52 thoughts on “martin usborne – mute”

  1. i love this essay.
    i love this essay.
    i love this essay.

    i love the whole idea of it and i’m surprised something so ubiquitous
    as dogs left in cars has not been tackled yet, to my knowledge.
    it’s always the things right under our noses that are most invisible to us.
    it’s a very powerful concept esp. accompanied by your words.
    i’m so glad i read them! i hardly ever do.
    one word of advise. lose the captions.
    this essay would be so much more potent, so much more “mute” and moving
    without the incessant popping up of irrelevant material.
    a big BRAVO to you. this ROCKS.

  2. “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”–Ogden Nash


    only criticism: too damn short!…

    give me more canines…more extraordinary brilliant, tender, enfeebled, angered, haunted/ing, mad, joyous faces :)))…

    not only do i love their expressions…but i love the relationship between dog AND CAR….the cars are as an important subject in this work…that’s just as fascinating too…or like where they sit…..

    it’s brilliant in it’s conception, simple in it’s execution (but damn, some of these pics are gorgeous with light and shadow and reflection)….and so so joyous (though, i too feel sad for these pups…)…

    which creature, great and small, waits so faithfully and with such an open and bruised heart than a dog awaiting, alone, their partner (‘owner’)…

    just love this so much…

    make it longer! :)))))

  3. What an original subject and great essay.
    I don´t think I could ever leave my dog in a car on his own like that.
    Talking about dogs…
    The only thing I had against the Detroit essay was the Pitbull image, I own a PitBull and in no way is he the violent killing dog everyone thinks of when they mention Pitbulls. I personally get a bit sick and tired of all the bad press this breed recieves. All breeds of dogs bite, OK I admit when a Pitbull bites it probably is far worse than other breeds…But they aren´t all aggressive.

  4. I like it a lot – and you have beaten me to the punch!

    For years, I have made it a point to photograph dogs in cars whenever I come upon them and I always thought that one day I would produce a piece of work based on these photos.

    But I don’t feel bad – you’ve done an excellent job and have created a truly reflective and contemplative piece of work.

    I love it. My heart goes out to all those dogs who sit and wait for their humans, be it in cars or elsewhere. That’s what so many dogs do – they spend 80 or 90 percent of their waking hours waiting for humans.

    Cats do, too, but on the whole, cats are better at entertaining themselves in the interim.

    Except for my cat, Jim. Even though I do not leave him alone, I always find him a nervous wreck when I get home from one of my trips. The only thing that calms him down is to spend a few hours with me in my office, jumping on and off my lap, walking across my keyboard, disconnecting harddrives, shutting down my monitor, knocking my coffee cup to the floor.

    Then he must be with me virtually all the time, day and night.

    Right now, he sits atop a box just to my left, grooming himself.

    Well, this is supposed to be about dogs, not cats, so I will cease now.


  5. Absolutely brilliant, from the concept till the execution.
    There is a lot to chew here, for me: ideas shall be simple, light shall be great, don’t be stuck in concepts – start shooting (to see how things look like in photographs, as Winongrad once said).
    Congratulations Martin!

  6. Love it. Hope to see it continue and grow (assuming it will, given the few images and it’s palcement on “works in progress”.

    Makes me think of the comment I once heard and often think of when I see my dog sitting and staring at a door….that they are the only creatures that can open doors with their minds – since sooner or later it seems that if they stare long enough, eventually the door opens….

    well done!


  7. This is an interesting premise for an essay – very cool!
    excellent lighting – I felt almost too perfect and staged…
    but it’s an amazing idea.

    “I was once left in a car at a young age. I don’t know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside Tesco’s, probably for fifteen minutes only. The details don’t matter. The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back: in a child’s mind it is possible to be alone forever.”

    I remember now, after reading this, times in my own life that were a lot like this. For me this feeling extends beyond sitting in cars to sitting in the principal’s office, waiting for a doctor, hear the news about an accident, etc… as an adult the impact changes – but to a kid, or perhaps a dog, the impact of being alone can be profound. leading to separation anxiety, and worse.

    I absolutely agree with Ross and DAH – it’s a work in progress, so so so simple, powerful.

    I personally reflect on childhood and try to remember the gigantic stairs I had to climb up, that it seemed to take FOREVER to turn four. and then five… Ten just seemed way to far into the future to comprehend – just like 40 seems old to a 20 year old…

    For a dog, or cat, what are their thoughts like? do they care about being alone? And at what point does it seem like a good idea to lick their.. well, they have different thoughts and different needs and behaviours…. Very interesting topic – DAH – might something like this be a good start for a scientific exploration for a NGM article?

  8. Excellent!

    original idea brilliantly executed.

    The first shot reminds me of a great book, The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov.
    Have you read it?

    well done

  9. I would definitely drop the captions, and probably the initial statement as well.
    As I get older I more and more think that trying to tell stories with photographs is a futile effort. Unlike cinema, video or literature, photography is simply not a good medium (or at least not the best one) to tell but to suggest or evoke.

    Be it conceptual or documentary photography, I believe in the power of images that represent a reality on their own. And this is exactly what I see here: not a story of the implicit relationship between dog and owner, but a set of beautiful and visually coherent images that need no explanation at all (always IMHO)

    Absolutely love this work.

  10. Holy shit. I had no idea. Was totally unaware of this work or this photographer. From one dog dude to another (and I don’t even have a dod), I’m your new biggest fan.

    I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Mr. Usborne. Looking forward to your upcoming book. How intriguing.

  11. Martin – I think they are perfect, thank you for your vision. I hope to see more, and it seems I am not alone. Congratulations on all your success.

    Bob – indeed – and if I didn’t have to take the small dogs out now I’d write more – but this series, and Martin’s words resonate so.

    DAH/Ross/Martin – about 6 years ago a book publisher was going to do a book on dogs in cars, and I was a contributor. After my first photos for it, I couldn’t stop looking for and photographing dogs in cars. They lacked the power of Martin’s for sure, possibly because it for me it was more about documenting, I saw them everywhere and wanted them ALL. The book ended up being dropped by the publisher. In any case, this may be simple but poignant idea, and is one which has never left me – but I think the photog needs more than an idea and an attachment to it – s/he needs also an understanding of the why behind it to make it as powerful as what we are seeing here. Martin has taken a simple idea and made it grand. I do have a very early dogs in cars shot taken when I was practically a kid up on my site that still makes me smile, so here’s to you Martin and to all the dogs you photographed that they may also share in the joy of going for a ride.(it’s on my VITA page if you are interested.)

    Martin – Really looking forward to seeing the rest of your work and books. Now for the photographer to photographer question – did you leave a card on the windshield letting the owner know you had photographed the pup? Is that how you know their names? Or did you make them up? Or wait for the return?

  12. Whoa now! I see someone referred to this as a GREAT STORY? Now that should start
    a conversation.

    DAH- Correctomundo about know your enemy! Feliz Navidad ya’ll!

  13. MARTIN…

    this is one of those good ideas, well executed, that should be a book…and miracle of all miracles, this book will actually SELL and still be fine book..an unusual combo…hats off!!

    cheers, david


    well, i tried putting three cats in my car….and then trying to drive them to vet..i can tell you i will never do that again…one up on the dashboard right in my line of vision, one crying on my shoulder, and one trying to jump out the other window…cats should not be put in cars…

  15. Once, my son took our late cat Royce to a friend’s house so that Royce could visit his brother, Little Guy. He put Royce in a carrier but on the way home, Royce broke out. Royce was then all over the car and the driver, shrieking, clawing, trying to get out. So my son gunned it, came flying towards home at about 55 or 60 on a 35 mph road. A cop stopped him. The cop came to the door. My son rolled the window down, just a crack. The cop told my son to get out and come and sit in his car with him. My son told the cop he couldn’t. The cat flew to the crack and tried to get out. The cop told my son to roll the window down, so he could talk better. My son said he couldn’t. The cop told him to show him his driver’s. He couldn’t. The cop looked at the cat, told my son to get the cat the hell out of there and home. So my son did. No ticket. No warning.

  16. Love it!

    It points our attention to such a simple element of our daily life, and is still telling a full length story.


  17. I didn’t expect to like this because doggy pics (like cat/kitten pics) are ubiquitous just about everywhere, and I really don’t possess that built-in that auto-‘awwww!’ that so many emit when confronted with a cuddly animal or baby human. But this series is exceptional, as resonant as the best of Erwitt. What strikes me is the emotion in those faces. Also the quality and simplicity of the images: the tonal variations are gorgeous (I had to do a double-take with the first one, as I initially saw a monochrome dog with orange eyes: a third-rate special effect).

    Martin’s writing is also perfect, concise and lucid. ‘… in a child’s mind it is possible to be alone forever.’ Very true; I was once left in a car and imagined my mother had been kidnapped [sic]. I recently saw a documentary on dogs that implied that (in some important ways) they are actually closer to us than primates. Looking through this excellent essay, I can believe it.

  18. I’d love to know what that dog is thinking. I’m sure dogs do think. Their expressions would certainly suggest so. That dog above has seared itself into my memory.

  19. There is a natural symbiosis between humans and dogs, but dogs are not closer to us than primates. We live our lives ruled by our existential fear and an awareness of our mortality. Dogs are governed by their limbic system. When we look at great apes, we see ourselves and we are often horrified, especially when they reach sexual maturity and become aggressive, violent, shit-flingers. When we look at dogs, we see what we would like to be. The dog’s main evolutionary adaptive trait is its ability to interpret our behavior. We are God. 15,000 years ago, we created DOG and have since genetically manipulated, modified, and tweaked according to whim and fancy. Elongated snouts became snubbed. Pointy ears flopped. Lateral eyes became frontal, large, round set in heads proportionally larger than the body. We created them to alert us to danger, to protect us, herd our livestock, track prey, kill rodents, warm our feet, amuse us, accessorize us. Modifications meant to accentuate one particular behavioral or physical trait are accompanied by a host of undesirable traits: asthma in dogs with scrunched up faces, cancer, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, short life spans, hip dysplasia, among others. And then, just like God, who allegedly created us in his image, we routinely betray our creation, breeding them like cattle, dumping them off in shelters. What kind of god selectively breeds a hairless dog? The genetic trait that creates this boutique brand is accompanied by bad teeth and skin cancer.

    Oh! Martin: cool, cool photographs! I think number 8 is my favorite. It’s the sobering counterweight to the amusing Great Dane in the boot.

    Someone said there are going to be a lot of photographers smacking their foreheads because they didn’t think of this. I would agree, had I not beaten everyone here on a similar project called Dogs Left Alone in Backyards For Excessive Farting Indoors.
    God, I love this Burn thing.

  20. Exceptional work Martin. Yesterday at the post office there were two pit bulls left in the car with their windows partly down. Everyone was very aware of them! Barking and snarling at passerby’s. One man actually walked up and started to pet one to calm it and then thought he might need that hand for something later.

    That photo would have introduced a different feeling into your essay of dogs that seem to be connecting on a higher emotional level as your dogs portray. LOL

    Stunning shots. Did you light the interiors or just managed to find the perfect lighting situation?

  21. “We created them to alert us to danger, to protect us, herd our livestock, track prey, kill rodents, warm our feet, amuse us, accessorize us.”

    And some, Chihuahua’s for instance, we created for a nice tasty treat!

  22. Fantastic! Yeah, now go for it! Maybe a bit more variety – like daytime, wider environment shots, and the puppy chewing the shit out of the dashboard! Or as my dog did once eating an entire flat of expensive pastries and cakes (so much for the “only popping in for five minutes should be fine” story).

  23. This is an absolutely fantastic essay – as has been said above just a bit short! But this means that more is on the way, right??
    I especially loved Alfie – I am a cat person myself, but love dogs as well, and when I see them in cars, noses pressed against the window just waiting for their owners to get back, it just breaks my heart.
    Well seen and well interpreted!

  24. Ha! I didn’t even realise comments were left on this site (realize – sp? – are we in the US?) until this cold London day after Christmas when I am wrapped up in a flu-ridden duvet and I decide to peruse the site. And here they all are! Well, I’m very flattered by all of the lovely things you say. My stuffy nose instantly feels better. You’ll probably not see my reply any more as the series is off topic now so I may as well fart into an empty elevator, but thank you, thank you. Yes, I am indeed trying to make it into a book – as we speak. But all the shots took time to set up, you see, mostly using three lights and tired dog-owner and a pack of ham/chewy things so the idea of doing another 40 or so suggests to me the best part of a year will be gone without much money coming in. Hmmmmm.

    Have a lovely new year all. As you all know, London fails in the snow so I may not ever escape my home and end up as one of the dogs in my own series.

  25. Pingback: My World and More ..: Friday Good Reads (1/14/11)

  26. Just for general information, the book ‘I’ll wait in the Car, Dogs along for the ride’ by Marcie Jan Bronstein was published in 2008. I believe the photos were taken as she found the dogs in their natural settings.. parking lots etc. It is surely a coincidence that Mr. Harvey has discovered the same inspiration as Ms. Bronstein!

  27. FISHAM..

    it was certainly not my inspiration , but that of Mr. Usborne who submitted this work to Burn….i was not aware of the book by Marcie Jan Bronstein, but will now go search for it indeed…there are several quite well known dog books, but i just do not know Marcie or this book…we publish here based on a combination of works submitted and what we can find or folks tell us about…in any case, thanks for putting me on to the Bronstein book….if it warrants there is no reason why we cannot publish it here as well at some future point…

    cheers, david

  28. Fisham and dah,
    just saw these messages. Thanks for the note about Marcie Jan Bronstein’s book which I have just googled – yep, very similar subject matter but I am afraid it is a coincidence. I have never heard of or seen that book (genuinely!). I guess the idea of dog’s in cars is a relatively straightforward one but hopefully my execution of it is unique.



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