The "Landfill Dogs" project is Shannon Johnstone's attempt to find homes for hopeful pets that have been at the Wake County Animal Center for a long time -- at least more than two weeks and sometimes hundreds of days.
Adopters and rescue groups have passed them by for any number of reasons; maybe their coloring doesn't make them stand out, or they're too big, too active, too scared.
So Johnstone takes their photos at a former landfill because they'll end up buried with the trash if no one takes them in. She then manipulates the photos the way she imagines the dogs dream: unleashed and free.
"They're unlucky. That's it, plain and simple," Johnstone said Wednesday as she climbed to the top of a former landfill in north Raleigh to photograph a shelter dog. "They're unlucky dogs, and I think they deserve a chance."
Johnstone, who is on sabbatical from her job as an associate professor of art at Meredith College and received a grant to work on the project, photographs one shelter dog a week at the landfill, along with some in foster care.
She manipulates the photos to remove signs of restraint: Leashes, collars and people are erased digitally.
"I think of the photos as their hopes and dreams, not their reality," Johnstone said. "It's their dreams and wishes, thinking about running free on a hill like that."
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year. In North Carolina, figures from the state Agriculture Department show that about 200,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in 2012.
Of the 72 dogs Johnstone has photographed since October 2012, 55 have found homes or gone to rescue groups. Twelve are waiting for homes at the shelter or in foster care, and five have been euthanized.
"She has made a world of difference," said Joanne Duda, foster coordinator at the Wake County shelter. "She's bringing awareness in a way that clicks with people."
Her photos attract more attention than those of a dog in a kennel because they give a sense of how the animal may look or act outside the shelter environment.
"This is what they're like when they're allowed to be a dog and not stuck in a cage all day long," Duda said.
As Brandon Klima of Raleigh visited several shelters this fall, he looked for a medium-size, calm dog. Then, he saw Johnstone's photo of Jumpin' Bean wearing a cape on the shelter's website.
Even though Jumpin' Bean was about 60 pounds and active, the photo led Klima to take a look at the brownish boxer/pit bull mix.
"He just looked like a blast," said Klima, who added that he grew up with rescue and shelter dogs. "The photos made me want to check him out."
Jumpin' Bean -- now named Archer -- was at the shelter for more than 130 days. His size and activity level likely made people shy away from him, Klima said.
"I think when people see he's been there a long time, they think something is wrong with him," Klima said. "But I wanted a dog who needed help and had been there a long time."
Now Archer lives the good life, going on 2.5-mile walks around Lake Lynn and occasionally riding with Klima to work.
On Wednesday, Johnstone and volunteer Bonnie Keyes took a pit bull mix named Nancy Botwin to the landfill. In the shelter, Nancy Botwin is a plain black dog, about 45 pounds, who doesn't stand out among scores of animals available for adoption. She's been at the shelter for more than 80 days, part of that in protective custody as part of a cruelty case.
At the landfill, Nancy Botwin -- named for a character in the TV series "Weeds" -- ran, jumped on rocks and tried to play with a golden retriever on a walk. Johnstone shot frame after frame, making high-pitched noises to attract Nancy Botwin's attention and make her tilt her head and perk her ears.
As she calmed down, Nancy Botwin became a snuggler, rubbing her head against people's legs and leaning against them. The dog -- rambunctious when pulled from the shelter -- dozed off on the ride back after two hours of freedom.
Nancy Botwin's photos will be posted with Johnstone's others on the shelter's website and on the Facebook page of the Friends of the Wake County Animal Center. Some of Johnstone's photos have been in gallery shows, and she hopes to publish a book with proceeds going to the shelter.
The shelter also plans to hang her photos there.
In addition to helping find homes for the dogs, Johnstone hopes her photos encourage people to spay and neuter their pets as a solution to overpopulation.
"All they want is to be with people," she said. "We breed them to be companions, and then we turn our backs on them. This is an easy problem to fix. So why do we have this problem?"