Carmen Gonzalez remembers the first time she sat down in Central Park with her new camera. The native of Puerto Rico had just left her close-to four-decade career as a chef and hoped to start a new chapter.
“For the second stage of my life, I wanted to do something that I truly had a passion for,” she explained. “I snapped my first photo in Central Park and I was so overwhelmed, I actually had tears in my eyes. And I needed to hear the click of the camera all the time.”
When she was out and about snapping photos in the Big Apple, the animal lover, who grew up with dogs since the age of 3, naturally gravitated towards the city’s canines. She decided to create an Instagram account, @nycstreetdogs, where she showcased the photos of her new four-legged friends, along with their stories. “I had some parents say to me, “We want this photo for our house.” And I was like, “Really, are you sure?”
This is how Gonzalez’s business, NYC Pet Pawtographer, began. Pup parents hire her for private photoshoots as well as clients such as Google, Milk Bone dog biscuits and Manhattan West, the new development in Hudson Yards.
In 2021, she came up with the idea to start a calendar or “pawlender” to benefit the street dogs, called satos, in her native Puerto Rico. Since she started the initiative two years ago, she’s raised $40,000 for organizations that saved the lives of the satos that are her models, and is releasing the 2024 edition on October 23.
You first came to New York in 1984 to study cooking at the New York Restaurant School and then worked at the famed Midtown restaurant The Quilted Giraffe. Tell us about that experience.
It was my first job after culinary school, in 1986. And it was one of the toughest, but greatest experiences of my life. I got to see firsthand what a five-star kitchen is. And you can imagine, in the ‘80s, being female, Latin and I’m a very, very short person, it was a great challenge, one that I lived through and learned a lot through.
Tell us why you changed careers to photography.
I decided to get out of the restaurant business. I’m not complaining, I had a great career. I had a TV show in Latin America. I did a tremendous amount of things in my chef life, which were very fulfilling at the time. I got to a point in my life that I wanted to not live under the incredible stress I was living in. So I started doing street photography and photojournalism, running around with my camera. But I am, at heart, a huge animal lover, just to give you an example, I cannot kill a fly. If I have a fly in my apartment, I open the window and set it free.
I read that you started taking pictures of dogs and posting them on Instagram and then their owners began asking if they could buy the shots.
Because of my passion for dogs, I was literally stalking people on the street and I would go and say, “Excuse me, can I take a picture of your dog?” Then I decided to start my Instagram account. I was encouraged by my brother and one of my best friends. Both of them were pushing me, saying, “This is what you need to do. You’re so good with dogs.” I literally, and I’m not kidding you, will sit on the streets of New York City, even if I’m totally dressed going to a meeting, to play with dogs.
What’s the secret to taking a dog’s photo?
I try to get a little bit of background about the dog. If I’m doing a private session, which means that I’m going to be spending a little bit more time with the dog, I actually have a conversation with the parents on the phone beforehand and I learn a little bit more about the dog. Is it skittish? Is it a rescue dog that is afraid of this and that? Or we can’t do it in Central Park during these hours because they are afraid of other dogs. If I have a human client, I’d say, “Jump,” “Be sad,” “Be happy.” With my models, I have to learn who they are and work with what they have and what they give me. When I get to meet the dog, I literally sit on the floor with the dog because when you’re at their same level, it’s a total different story. So I sit with them and start letting them sniff me and play with me. I have a yoga mat and that’s where I lay down on the street or in the park to take the photos. Some of them just come and lay on my back.
What are some funny stories that have happened while you’re photographing them?
I have the ones that come and decide to literally take a nap on my back, which is extremely funny to me. I have others, they just come and sit next to me and they look at me like, “We just want to play; we don’t want to work with you.” I had one that peed on my mat and me because you know, that’s what he felt he needed to do. I have a lot of them that come dashing towards me, which, I have to be very careful because of the camera, but they just jump on me and think that I’m a play toy.
Tell us how you started your work helping strays in Puerto Rico after meeting two pups in particular there.
When I was a child, I actually had a sato, which are the stray dogs in Puerto Rico. Satos have always been close to my heart. And I photograph a lot of satos because a lot of them, like Puerto Ricans in the ‘60s, come to New York and are adopted. I was in Puerto Rico in 2021, vacationing with my family. My brother, who is a commercial artist and into photography, was with me. I asked someone that I know very well through Instagram to bring her dogs to feature them on my page. So I met with her and her two pups. She had adopted one of them seven years prior, but the second one had come into their household only three months before. So here I am laying on the street, capturing these two dogs running towards me because that’s the photo I wanted to take.
When I sat down to look at the photo on my camera, I literally had tears in my eyes and I will never forget my brother looked at me and said, “And we’re crying because?” And I said, “Look at this.” And when I saw that photo, these two dogs that had met each other and became brothers two months before, their heads were both tilted, they were both smiling and running in unison, both of their left paws were lifted at the same time. And their mom is very involved with the rescues in Puerto Rico. And I looked at her and my brother and said, “I want to do a calendar to save the lives of satos.” And my brother said, “I’ll do it with you.”
You’ve expanded your business to include commercial clients, like Google. How do they find you?
This is the blessing and I feel very touched and honored that a lot of people that I don’t know follow me. And a lot of them are marketing and PR companies and they love my work and think of their clients. I just did an event for Google in their Williamsburg store and I photographed 72 dogs in one day. And I’m doing another event for them in November because the first one was such a success.
To learn more about Carmen’s work, visit www.nycpetpawtographer.com
To order the 2024 pawlender, visit www.nycpetpawtographer.com/general-8