A giant grasshopper with a mouth the size of a toenail stares blankly at the shiny lens in front of it. Its spiky limbs stand poised, as if ready to pounce, its beady little eyes watching, waiting.
*Click*. Just as the shutter closes and reopens, the green critter strikes a pose – a big, goofy grin appearing across its face – before it launches itself at the person behind the camera.
“Can they bite?” Alex Cearns asks the insect’s keeper, once he’s removed it from her nose. Apparently, she’s told, “if their mouths are big enough”.
Moments like this reaffirm that Alex’s chosen profession involves more risks than your everyday desk job. The photographer captures the eccentric side of pets (including kamikaze crickets) and the loving nature of rescue animals, through images shot at her North Perth studio and at various sanctuaries, menageries and refuges around the world.
“I try to use my photography to create emotionally appealing images that challenge the way people see rescued animals,” Alex says. “Whether they are local endangered wildlife, abused farm animals, unwanted pets in shelters, malnourished Balinese street dogs, or Asian bears with missing paws, my intention is to capture their faultless spirits in a fresh, new way.”
Alex, who first picked up a camera in 2007, dedicates the majority of her time behind the lens to the animal kingdom, spending countless hours snapping everything from wild bears and cheeky seals, to baby orang-utans and silver-backed gorillas. She uses the pictures to benefit charity organisations such as RSPCA, Sea Shepherd, Guide Dogs WA and Animals Australia.
“Besides photography, supporting animal conservation and rescue is my strongest driving passion and an enormously important part of my life,” Alex says. “In the rescue arena, animals usually suffered atrocities at the hands of human beings, or they’ve had a hideous life because of something that has happened to them or a circumstance they found themselves in due to direct action from a person, and they can’t speak for themselves – they’re vulnerable.”
Alex uses her photographs to educate people about these injustices, and to help promote each charity’s cause, especially if it means a dog is re-homed, a donation is made, or that the media might run a story to increase awareness and hopefully inspire change.
“If I post a picture on social media of a rescued dog that’s now happy and healthy, but write about her terrible story, that gets a better response than showing the graphic picture of when she first came in and was starved and malnourished,” she says. “It’s about taking a picture of an animal at the right time and hitting the right audience, so they feel that connection to the picture they’re looking at, and want to make a change or help in some way.”
Alex has been taking the right types of photograph for years, her loving portrayals of recovering animals helping to raise money for welfare groups and sanctuaries near and far. Just last year, she raised more than $25,000 in one night, thanks to the pictures she took of bears in Cambodia for Free The Bears.
“The images I take are used to generate funds and awareness – the charities use them for campaigns and marketing,” she says. “They sell copies of the prints, anything they can do to generate hype and interest and discussion about bears and rescue.
“Pictures can be very powerful in changing opinions or educating people toward a particular point of view, especially when it’s about the beauty of animals, loving animals, and being kind to them.”
The photographer has been volunteering with Free The Bears for quite some time, travelling between Perth and Cambodia, India and, most recently, Laos.
“I’ve been photographing a bear there called ChamPa,” Alex says. “She’s only ever grown up with humans, so she’s a little bit different to other bears. She had brain surgery not that long ago – a team flew from overseas to do the surgery on her and they kept her away from the other bears, so she’s quite humanised.”
Photographs taken of ChamPa and the Laos sanctuary will be used for the Free The Bears 21st birthday next year, and for a variety of awareness initiatives.
Alex donates her time to more than 40 charities on an ongoing basis, providing them with beautiful images to use for their campaigns and fundraisers. Each year, she picks a local and international charity project to focus her efforts on, funding her volunteer work through her pet portrait business in Perth.
“Lately I’ve been working with a wildlife sanctuary in Tasmania. I’ve been going over there once or twice a year to photograph their rescue animals, and to raise awareness. They’re trying to build Australia’s first 24-hour wildlife hospital.”
Alex is interested in not just the cute and adorable, but also those creatures often perceived as dangerous or potentially harmful. As a result, she has been stuck in a cage with six very inquisitive, hungry and blind bears; been face-to-face with feral, grunting pigs; danced with a darting emu; and been whacked in the face by a grumpy elephant’s tail.
“Some of the creatures I photograph are wild, so there’s sometimes a dangerous element to it, especially with bears – bears can commit horrific injuries on people if you’re not careful.” However, as long as you take care and use common sense, she says, it’s rare that you’ll be put in an overly risky situation.
“I’ve only ever been bitten by a ferret and a bear cub, of all the things.”
Alex’s passion to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves is something she’s been committed to for a very long time.
“I joined the Western Australian Police Service when I was 19, to help people, and over the next 14 years I was exposed to the darkest side of humanity,” she says. “My last two years there were at the child abuse unit, which was fairly intense. And I guess I just had this moment where, after 14 years, one day,
I thought, ‘I don’t want to know what people do to each other anymore’.”
That’s when Alex got behind her camera, and decided to help her non-human family out instead. It’s not always easy, but it certainly has its rewards.
“I sometimes photograph litters of puppies and, honestly, it’s puppy chaos,” Alex says.“
I have puppies in my hair, on my lap, five or six puppies on me, puppies over there, puppies up there. And when one puppy needs to go to the toilet, everybody needs to go.”
And it’s moments like these that only increase the wonder that the photographer experiences at the bond that exists between humans and animals. “Animals teach us to appreciate every moment, to greet each day with enthusiasm, to look for connections in others and to trust in our intuition,” Alex says. “We see the best of ourselves in animals – they’re just innocent, adorable, they make us laugh, they bring us joy, and they make us happy.”
Joy by Alex Cearns, Penguin, $20. You can buy Alex’s book from various bookshops, and online at houndstoothstudio.com.au. Donate to Free The Bears at freethebears.org.au, and to the RSPCA at rspca.org.au.