By the time the photographer Sophie Gamand met Peanut the shelter dog, his ears had already been tightly cropped. It was something she’d seen before: dogs in rescue sometimes arrive at the shelter, abandoned, with their ears cut very close to the skull, leading to potential health issues.
“Ear-cropping” is the process by which a dog’s ears are cut, either under anesthesia by a veterinarian or, in some cases, at home without anesthetics or the presence of a vet. While some argue that these surgeries prevent ear infections, the evidence does not support this theory. We recommend reading Gamand’s article about the practice in full for an understanding of its history and current use.
It’s impossible to know why Peanut’s ears were cropped, but some owners do this to give their dogs a “tougher” appearance. In any case, ear cropping can be devastating for dogs like Peanut, who still has sensitive scars that are prone to bleeding and irritation. Dogs also communicate with their ears, so taking them away might make it harder for them to express themselves to humans and to other dogs.
Cropped ears can also make it difficult for some dogs to find homes; that includes pit bull-type dogs—gentle dogs who already deal with misconceptions and prejudices. Peanut was one of the lucky ones. After Gamand photographed him, he was adopted by a woman named Heather.
Years later, when Gamand started to experiment with artificial intelligence (AI), she returned to her photograph of Peanut and other portraits of shelter dogs with cropped ears. Using this new tool, she “gave” the dogs their ears back, showing us what these individuals would look like if they’d never been cropped.
“When I saw the ear reconstruction, I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly in tears,” Heather, the woman who adopted Peanut, told the photographer. “It compounded my existing sadness about Peanut’s ears. I often think about them and imagine what could have been.’”
Soon after she released the first images from the project, Gamand received requests for more “ear reconstructions” from people who’d adopted dogs with cropped ears. Through the project, they were able to experience the same feelings Heather did when she saw Peanut with his ears.
AI has dominated photography news headlines for months now. Gamand’s ear reconstructions predate much of these discussions, but I believe they could provide potential a roadmap for how these tools can be used to tell important, meaningful stories in ethical and innovative ways. We spoke with Gamand about the harmful practice of ear-cropping, the creation of these moving images, and her ambivalent feelings about the future of AI.
Can you tell us a bit about working with some of these dogs?
Sophie Gamand: While working on my Pit Bull Flower Power project, I often felt conflicted because the flower crowns hid the dogs’ ears. We often see pit bull-type dogs with cropped ears in rescue. Staffordshire terriers are a breed that is commonly cropped (even though the breed standard does not call for it explicitly). That is rooted in the aesthetic of dog fighting these dogs are too often—and wrongfully—associated with.
My flower portraits were meant to help these dogs find adoptive homes. And often cropped ears stand in the way of adoption because they suggest the dog has a rough past or personality. At the same time, their ears are such an important part of their story. I always felt conflicted about the crowns hiding them.
I worked with a Doberman that had intact ears once as well. What’s interesting is that these dogs are usually very sweet. They are nicknamed ‘velcro dogs’ because they tend to be super attached to their people and needy. Personality traits that really don’t match the aesthetic we know.
Is there one photo, in particular, that just took your breath away or brought tears to your eyes?
Sophie Gamand: All of them! I know it sounds cheesy, but each time I have added ears to one of these dogs, my heart burst. Especially when the expression on their face suddenly makes sense with the ears. To me, it really feels like these dogs are missing something. And when the AI tool gave them a pair of ears that so perfectly matched them, it felt very emotional. Like coming full circle, erasing human stupid acts.
Xena, in particular, was such a sweet dog in real life, but with her cropped ears, she looked fierce. AI gave her those long, floppy, velvety ears and I let out an “awwww” out loud. It was such a magical moment when the picture appeared on my screen.
How have some of the adoptive parents responded to the images, either from the images from your own collection or the ones that were sent to you directly?
Sophie Gamand: After I shared the project on social media, I received probably a hundred requests from pet parents who always wondered what their dog might look like with ears. I spent days altering the photos they’d sent me, and many of them were brought to tears, as they shared with me. Some had mixed feelings because they love their dog just the way they are, and it felt wrong wishing them to look different, but they still recognized how cruel it was that someone robbed their dog of their ears.
Shockingly, you also received some hate after working on this project. If you feel comfortable, could you share a bit about this experience?
Sophie Gamand: I did not expect to receive so much heat for this project. I think I had underestimated how attached to ear cropping some breeders and breed enthusiasts are. In my mind, this was a non-controversial issue: why would anyone vehemently protect their right to take a blade to an innocent puppy’s ears? I was very wrong.
People who dislike this project, though they claim to be dog lovers themselves, say I am being too sensitive, and that the ‘dogs don’t care.’ I think this is an outdated view of our dog companions. Some people view dogs as commodities, things we can push around and do whatever we want with, animals that are not as intelligent or refined as humans.
These people don’t make the effort to consider their dog’s experience of the world. I think it’s disrespectful to our dogs and the special bond that unites us. If we agree that dogs feel pain and have feelings—after all, they dream, they miss us, they get scared, they have friends, likes, and dislikes—then we must agree that depriving them of their ears or tail through traumatic, elective surgery, is wrong. Especially considering how important ears and tails are for dogs to emote and interact with the world around them.
There’s a large body of evidence indicating that ear cropping has no benefit. Why, then, are people still doing this?
Sophie Gamand: I think ultimately, regardless of what breeders and breed enthusiasts say, look is the main driving factor for cropping ears. The health benefit argument has been debunked by veterinarians. These people hide behind that argument, but ultimately it’s about protecting looks.
The AKC (American Kennel Club) is very clear on this issue, and they insist that ear cropping must be done to preserve looks and health of some breeds. These outdated breed standards often go back to the 1800s and are so out of touch. This is akin to protecting historical artifacts, upholding old dusty books, instead of regarding dogs as the sentient beings they are and considering modern lifestyles and morals, and how much more we know about dogs today.
Let’s take Dobermans as an example. Their breed standards call for cropped ears. People buying these dogs want that look, and many people don’t even think about the fact that Dobermans are born with the most adorable floppy ears because it is so rare to see them with their natural ears. And when they do have floppy ears, people might not recognize them as Dobermans. The AKC wouldn’t recognize them either. In this case, the ear crop is so intertwined with what we expect of the breed, that people are resistant to giving up the practice.
Do you see any signs of this practice ending in the near future?
Sophie Gamand: Some countries banned the practice, which is considered animal cruelty. But in the U.S., I don’t see that happening. The same thing goes for tail docking.
I knew someone who bought a Corgi, and when they asked their breeder if their dog could keep her tail, the breeder said that it was too late, she’d been docked already (it’s usually done when the puppy is a few days old). The breeder never gave them the option. Have you ever seen a Corgi’s tail? It’s the most glorious thing, but breeders still dock them because it’s written in old breed standards that date from when corgis were used to watch cattle… When was the last time you saw a Corgi run with cows?
Can you walk me through your process in creating these images and adding the ears? How long does it typically take to get one of these images, and how many prompts do you try?
Sophie Gamand: I made these using DALL·E. I used their eraser tool, which is awesome if you want to work on your own images. I erased that area and prompted DALL·E to add ears. I kept it simple. The results were hit or miss. Sometimes it worked immediately and within seconds I got a perfect image, sometimes I had to try for a while, erasing more or less of the image, re-doing it, trying variations in the prompt. It can be a frustrating process.
How did you choose the final images? What were you looking for the ears to express?
Sophie Gamand: I chose images that felt the most realistic, where the ears were proportionate. Mostly I really wanted AI to work its magic with very little intervention from me. Because the idea was: how does the computer imagine these dogs should look like? Someone commented on the project saying something like: “wow, even the computer understands how lame it is to crop ears. Yet we humans don’t get it.”
Can you tell us a bit about your feelings about AI in general, outside of this specific project?
Sophie Gamand: We have a lot to be concerned about when it comes to AI. The ethical implications are huge. It is threatening humanity in many ways, and we should handle the tool very carefully. I have mixed feelings about AI and there is so much to be discussed. Here, I will just focus on the relationship between creativity and AI. The tool is here to stay, sadly, and a lot of the damage has already been done.
As creatives, especially photographers who are often here to document reality, I think it’s important to ask ourselves if and how we want to engage with AI, and what that might look like. We must educate the public about AI images, create ethically sound practices around AI, and protect human creativity.
When it comes to creativity and AI: there are days, I wake up feeling depressed, doomed, and like AI is about to replace us all. But as someone who has experimented with the tool, I have to say, I still believe artists cannot be replaced—not yet, anyway.
Sure, at first AI seems flashy and awesome, but it’s not a magic wand. And yes, some artists and companies will take shortcuts and use AI as they might use free stock images versus hiring photographers, or copying another artist instead of finding their own voice. But I think it shows and can come across wildly inauthentic.
Then there are some super problematic projects illustrating current or historical events with AI. From an artist’s perspective, I think it’s a really fascinating idea, but from a photography standpoint, some would argue it’s completely unethical—especially given how “fake news” has plagued society in recent years. I don’t think our world is equipped for this type of work.
For those of us intrigued and wanting to experiment with AI in a responsible way, I think it’s possible. AI can be a cool tool for drafting ideas, for example. Because I work with dogs, sometimes I don’t want to subject my models to difficult test shoots. Having the option of drafting my ideas in AI instead has been really interesting.
That being said, I would much rather draft those using my own photographs, creating my own datasets basically— that’s something Adobe Firefly promises to make more accessible, so we’ll see. Ultimately, that could be ideal, if AI creators could only use their own work as reference.
I will say though, experimenting with AI becomes overwhelming. So many ideas, so many prompts, you find yourself spiraling very quickly. It’s a bit like browsing Instagram reels endlessly, except this time it’s your own ideas and creativity playing with infinite possibilities. Ideas are being materialized in a matter of seconds.
Playing with AI made me feel like anything was possible. Then soon, it felt like nothing mattered anymore. I realized it could hurt my creative process. I am taking my distances now, and protecting my process a bit more.
Do you have any advice for photographers who are interested in exploring AI and want to do so responsibly?
Sophie Gamand: The first thing I’d recommend is to look into opt-out options for your work—such as Have I Been Trained?—especially if you are an artist who has created a very specific visual style. The website allows you to opt your own images out of certain AI datasets. I don’t know how solid this option is, and it doesn’t impact all AI datasets, of course. It’s a drop in the ocean. But it’s a start and it’s also taking a stand and feeling empowered in the face of AI. Perhaps in the future, we would be asked for consent before datasets are created.
The next piece of advice would be to always push your work further than just what the tool allows. That means going beyond the tool, finding ways to use it that won’t hurt other artists, integrating it into your workflow without compromising on our own soul work.
I cannot stand what I call “prompt and post” images. People prompting AI, and posting the results as is, without any more thought, retouching, without integrating their own voice into the images, without meaning. Sure, the images are sleek and intriguing, fun too, but what’s the point of pushing a button to make art? That instant gratification is what we should be concerned with. We must resist it.
If we don’t push past the convenience of AI, if we don’t use it as just one tool among many we use to create our work, we will do a huge disservice to the creative community, and AI will absolutely win. Play with AI responsibly, but bring those ideas to real life. Transform them using Photoshop, painting, re-photographing, and rearranging the images. Make them your own. Have AI serve your voice, instead of letting it exploit your voice.