An Interview With Alex Cearns

Alex Cearns - Pet & Animal Rescue Photographer OAM (Order of Australia), AIPP M.Photog

Australian photographer Alex Cearns exquisitely crafts animal portraits conveying the intrinsic joy people find in their animals. As the Creative Director of Houndstooth Studio in Perth, she photographs near 1300 animals a year. Her clients range from engaged pet lover, top corporate brands, and around 40 international and Australian animal charities and conservation organisations. Her photographs have been extensively published around the world in all forms for media, books, ad campaigns and magazines. 

When it comes to photography and life, Ales is passionate, kind and dedicated, with lightning has humour and a great sense of fun. She lives with her partner, their two rescue dos and cat in Perth Western Australia. 

We were pleased when Alex agreed to answer some questions for us about her creative journey and immense success in business. 

When did you first pick up a camera? And, when did your passion for photography begin?  

My lifelong love of animals began during my formative years in outback South Australia where my father was a sheep shearer and wool valuer. As an only child, my constant companions were my dogs, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits and bottle-fed lambs. My family had a great regard for Australian wildlife and I often helped my mother rescue and care for a wide array of injured joeys, birds and other creatures until they could be released back into their natural habitat.

Photography became a serious passion in 2006. On occasion I’d used a point-and-shoot camera and film camera until then, but when a friend showed me the scope of digital photography I was hooked. Never one to do things by halves, I spent every spare moment studying photographic literature, and practicing the craft on my own pets, those of friends and family, as well as farm animals and wildlife. I tried a few other genres such as landscapes and people, but animals enthralled me more than any other subject. Within a short period of time I knew animals would be the focus of my lens.

Fast forward to today and I’m very clear on why I get out of bed each day to take photographs. I want to show people how beautiful animals are through images and support, promote and endorse, animal rescue.

You worked with the Western Australian Police for 14 years. 7 years as a police officer & 7 years as a Crime Analyst with major crime squads. Which included armed robbery, major fraud, homicide squad and the child abuse unit. You then spent 5 years as a transport security inspector in the aviation industry. Auditing airports and airlines for the Federal Australian Government. How did you make the transition from a career in government to perusing Pet Photography? What skills, if any did you transfer from your previous career into your pet photography business?

On a work trip to the stunning Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean Territories I photographed a group of giant blue clams at a rustic breeding facility. Mesmerised by the vivid colours of the clams I waited patiently to get the right shot.

One of the images received positive feedback from family and friends and I felt encouraged to enter it into several major photographic competitions. I was thrilled (and a bit surprised!) when it won several major awards. This led to gallery representation and print sales of the image – and was the first time I felt like my photographs had a value. People actually wanted to pay for my work!

Meanwhile, I converted a small office at the back of our property into a photographic studio and spent every weekend filling requests for pet portraits. What started as a weekend hobby was growing so much and I found myself working up to 100 hours per week in both jobs. It was crazy busy but thrilling to gradually see the emergence of a viable business in which I could merge my two passions – animals and photography. When the demand for my photography grew (2009), I knew a decision had to be made – stick with my safe Government job or take a chance on this burgeoning, in demand business. At the time I was debt free and my back up plan if photography bombed was to work in a pet products store. I decided to be take a leap of faith and left my government role. Houndstooth Studio was born.

My police skills come in handy if someone doesn’t pay their photography invoice on time. Ah, just kidding. I think my 19 year career in enforcement, auditing, and compliance really taught me how to communicate effectively with lots of different people. In policing you are exposed to a broad section of the community, from all walks of life. It developed my compassion for people and gave me an understanding of others. You never know what someone is going through, so I always try to lead with compassion and understanding. I’m pretty immune to taking most things personally, I try not to get stressed unless I have a valid reason to, and I don’t worry about things I can’t control.

You are photographing over 1300 domestic pets a year. You have no doubt heard the old saying “Never work with children or animals”, on many occasions. So, in saying that, what are the biggest challenges you have encountered while working with animals? What do you find the most rewarding in pet photography?

​Ha, I think the saying should be “Never work with children AND animals”. That’s when you are in for it, LOL. One of the challenges for me has been learning how to work with a multitude of different species.

Across one day I could be photographing a dog who is scared of strangers, venomous snakes, and rescue birds. Different handling techniques need to be applied to each different subject and working with a creature who can kill you is very different to photographing fluffy kittens. Everything varies from species to species, animal to animal, from the way I move, to where they are positioned, to how close or far away I am when taking their photo. Managing the safety of my animal subjects and any people in the studio is also paramount.

You have written & photographed 6 books now. One of my favourites is “Perfect Imperfection – Dog portraits of resilience and love”, which highlights adorable dogs who have overcome adversity. Could you please tell us more about the book? What inspired you to start producing books?

Being a published author with a book deal has always been a huge goal. I feel very lucky to have the support of my publishing team, and to be currently working on my 7th book – I’m very aware that a prior book deal doesn’t guarantee the next one, so I never take my book deals for granted. If my last book was my last book, I’d still be eternally grateful.

One of my most passionate aims as an animal photographer is to capture the adorable subtleties that make all creatures precious and unique. I love every dog I have the privilege of photographing, but those perceived as ‘different’ hold a special place in my heart. They have lost a leg, been born without eyes, or are still showing the scars of former abuse.

My book ‘Perfect Imperfection – Dog portraits of resilience and love’ showcases images and stories of 60 adorable canines who have overcome adversity. Most dogs with ‘afflictions’ don’t dwell on them. They adapt to their bodies without complaint and they survive with determination. They push on, always, wanting to be included and involved in everything as much as they can, and as much as an able-bodied dog does.

The tenacity of dogs to overcome adversity never ceases to amaze me. They make the most out of life and from them I have learnt so much about always seeing the positive in every situation and never giving up.

‘Perfect Imperfection’ is testament to their zest for life and is a book I wanted to produce more than 8 years.

How did you make the decision to add animal photography tours to your business? Was it a conscious decision/goal? What have you learnt professionally and personally from running photography tours?

I’ve worked as a photographer for Free the Bears for several years and a few years ago they asked If I would lead a fundraising tour to India for them, to take fellow photographers to their co-sponsored Indian bear sanctuaries. I jumped at the chance, and it was the beginning of a partnership with tour company World Expeditions. Together we aim to create ethical animal tours to amazing locations. Since that first trip, I’ve also had the privilege of touring to the Antarctica, Africa, Galapagos Islands, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam and soon, Laos. 

Professionally I’ve learnt that tours are amazing, but they are also work – good fun work though! I tend to take on a lot of responsibility on tour, even though we always have a local guide with us. It’s just my nature in wanting to look after everyone and make sure everyone is ok.

Personally, travel has broadened my horizons. I’ve met amazing people, seen incredible sights and know that I am blessed to have the opportunities to visit these places, and to share that with the like-minded people travelling with me.

You are known as a renowned world professional Pet photographer. What are your key tips to becoming a successful photographer?

I’m self-taught in photography so the key for me was self-auditing – really going over my work and trying to tweak it to let me style evolve. I’m still trying to capture that illusive “perfect shot”. Having a niche is something which has benefited me too, as I just get to focus on animals as my subjects and given I’m a huge lover of animals, this makes my day job an absolute joy. To succeed in business as a photographer, developing a business mindset and build a solid foundation to work from is essential. You can’t service customer needs to the required standard if you don’t have systems and processes in place.

In April 2019 you blogged about a goal of yours is to be interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres. Your hope is to spread the word about animal rescue and the worth of vulnerable pets. You discussed that you didn’t know how to tackle this goal, as it wasn’t like other goals you’d set for yourself. While visiting LA this year you started to manifest your goals by visiting the Ellen set on a Universal Studios tour. How hard have you found it to push through your fears in business and photography? Or, even to take huge risks (maybe financial) to reach your goals?

My Ellen Show goal is a work in progress. She is a fellow animal lover and her show attracts many people who feel the same way about animals as Ellen does. Her show would be an incredible platform to share my rescue message from, and I could reach a relatable, caring audience. I‘m still planning my approach.

I’ve always taken calculated risks in my business. I’m not reckless when it comes to trying something new, but I am fearless. I won’t make a decision which could tank my entire business or undo my years of hard work, but I also understand that to move forward I have to put myself out there. This is something I continue to do even after being in the industry for 12 years.  The goals which are never attained are the ones you didn’t bother trying to achieve. I don’t like to ever wonder “What if” when it comes to business and my photography. I would rather make an attempt at something and have it not work out (and learn the lessons which come with it) than never give something a go at all.

In 2019 you performed in the Adelaide Fringe Festival in a show called “From Law Maker to Image Maker”. Can you tell us how this came about, its purpose and why did you decide to initiate this in your original home state? How did your photos play a huge part in the show?

Ah I think I said “Yes” to performing at the Adelaide Fringe Festival because it scared me – and I know if I have a fear reaction to something which isn’t actually life threatening, it’s because I’m out of my comfort zone. And from that I know I should push on and do the said scary thing, because it’s the best way to grow. That’s what it’s like being in my head!

My fringe show was based around my journey in photography. It was 90 minutes long which can feel like a lifetime when you have to maintain the engagement of your audience. I used my images to lead them through my story and shared stories about the images. The show contained a lot of humour and I love the challenge of making people laugh. I’m a closet stand-up comic wannabe! I try to remember to portray animal photography as fun – because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not heavy and dark, its light and beautiful. I was totally taken by surprise when I received three 5 star reviews for the show, and it was an amazing experience to share my love of animals to an audience which included my Dad, Step Mum, cousins, and many wonderful animal rescue friends whose wildlife work I admire.  

You philanthropic and advocacy work with over 40 animal and wildlife organisations around the world is truly inspiring. You’ve raised a great deal of funds for these organisations, raised awareness and given vulnerable animals a voice. The work has resulted in you being awarded the 2019 Order of Australia medal. How does your work with charitable organisations “Fill Your Cup”? Can you tell us what receiving such a prestigious award means to you?

To be honest, I wouldn’t take photos at all if I couldn’t use photography to give back to animal charities in some way. I see pet photography as my day job – it’s an awesome day job, but it’s what I do from 9am to 5pm every day. My charity work is my passion, and I’m blessed that my day job gives me the leverage (income funds and time) to conduct animal charity projects, either close to home or overseas.

Receiving the OAM was definitely a career high. My previous awards either directly related to an image I’d taken or were related to the way I run my business (where my business practices were ranked against measurable criteria.) The OAM came about because someone sent in a nomination – I found it truly humbling that someone would take the time, and make the effort, to do that, let alone think I would be a worthy recipient.

I don’t ever stop and look back on what I’ve contributed to animal charities – I’m always looking forward to see where I can best be of use and am always planning my next rescue partnership to raise funds and awareness.  My aim in life is to use my photography to help animals as much as I can, and the OAM now serves to remind me that there is more to come.

You clearly run an amazingly successful photography business. You have touched the lives of many people and their pets. If we started to list everything you and your business have and are achieving, it would be enormous. How do you manage a work life balance? And, how valuable are the people around you to your success?

Everything in business is a team effort. I would be lost without the direction and support of my business partner (who is also my partner) and my business administrations manager (who is a lifelong friend of 25 years). Then there’s the relationships I have with fellow photographers, camera store owners, sponsors, animal rescue organisations, my clients … the list goes on. Many people contribute in some way to my business success and I’m immensely grateful for that.

As for work life balance, I now photograph three days a week, and coach people in their own businesses two days a week when one of my coaching intakes is in session. Sunday is always a family day and on my other day off (usually Friday) I try to take a total break as well. For my down time I really enjoy just being at home. Our home is like our sanctuary and I love a good sleep in, doing domestic things like gardening, and then taking our dogs for a walk. That is my favourite type of day, one without any commitments. I also love kayaking and spending time with my marvellous friends, and I love going to the cinema – I think because I grew up in a small town and we didn’t have one, so I still see it as a novelty thirty years later. I enjoy reading and have my nose in several books at one time – preferred genres are business, nonfiction and Stephen King. I‘m quite happy to work hard when I’m at work, and to switch off when I’m at home.

Thank you Alex for so openly sharing some of your amazing story with us. You’re passion for animals comes shining through, and your hard work to build successful businesses is inspirational.

Check out more work by Alex Cearns and follow her amazing journey on social media.