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In early March 2003, when I arrived in Taiwan to teach English, I took to the streets of Taoyuan County to take some photographs. I was looking for anything—signs, market scenes, strange faces, cityscapes, bus stations, barber shops—but all I could see was dogs. These dogs were not pets, though they may once have been. They were strays—dogs that lived on their own.
For nine months I wandered around my adopted home, morning, noon and night, always carrying my camera with me. The stray dogs led me down alleys I would not otherwise have noticed and little lanes that were safe shortcuts through the dense traffic, as well as parks, parking lots, train stations, bus stations, old abandoned industrial sites and the occasional cul-de-sac. I never had the fear of being bitten, because most of the dogs I saw were afraid of human beings. They knew abuse and abandonment. They knew the feeling of hot water scalding them or acid eating away at their skin. They had been kicked and hit with sticks, and they were moving targets when they tried to cross a road. When I raised my camera, they flinched in memory of the heavy hands or big boots that had been raised against them. But for all of their fear, some strays seemed to pose for their portraits—to sit at attention as though I were their owner dishing out doggie treats. Or they raised their heads and looked directly into my lens with sad, heavy eyes as though some love could be found there.
Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and he died proving this point when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam. My own photos are a far cry from the romantic, honest images that Capa burned onto film, but I did heed his advice. I used a fixed 35 mm Olympus Stylus Epic point’n’shoot camera that does not allow you to be far from your subject—in other words, no zoom lens. All of the photographs were taken from a few feet away.
The dogs did everything on the streets—ate, slept, shit, pissed, played, fucked, fought, gave birth, died and survived. It was not always easy to look, but look I did. I saw small, scrawny strays with mange and matted fur slink through the morning markets looking for scraps, a one-eyed mutt that slept outside a 7 -Eleven waiting for a helping hand, an old-timer with a compound fracture on his front paw oozing pain and ashamed of his injury, a pack that crossed the street as though they were the Beatles on Abbey Road, a curly-haired creature with endless injuries struggling to find a drink of water before drawing his final breath, a male wailing in pain as the female dragged him into the bushes, their sex stuck together in the heavy heat.
I grew up in a small city on the east coast of Canada and never encountered a stray dog. Taiwan is a modern, industrialized society with twenty-three million people and an estimated one million stray dogs living on an island smaller than Nova Scotia. That is a lot of people and a lot of dogs cohabiting on a minor land mass. It’s not working out so well. In the end, I simply offer my thanks to the strays for showing me the true map of Taiwan.