Martin Usborne’s heartbreaking photos of dogs in cars speak to humans’ fear of abandonment

A new book titled The Silence of Dogs in Cars, to be published by Hoxton Mini Press, marries the photographer’s interest in animal welfare with an exploration of human loneliness.

28 February 2020


As a young child, photographer Martin Usborne was left in a car – an experience that had a profound effect on him. “I don't know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside a supermarket, probably for fifteen minutes,” he says. “The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back. In a child's mind it is possible to be alone forever.” It’s this fear of abandonment that Martin has tried to recreate in his new series The Silence of Dogs in Cars.

Featuring rejected, lonely and expectant pups, often meeting the lens of the camera with unbearable sadness, the series extrapolates from his very personal experience while commenting on the way humans treat voiceless animals more widely. “The dog in the car is a metaphor, I suppose, not just for the way that animals (domestic and wild) are so often silenced and controlled by humans but for the way that we so often silence and control the darker parts of ourselves: the fear, the loneliness that we all feel at times,” Martin explains.

Martin himself trained as animator and worked in children’s TV, before switching to photography in his 30s. The sense of longing is a theme that runs throughout his work and he cites Todd Hido as a photographer he really admires. “His American landscapes are dripping with foreboding, beauty and silence,” he tells It’s Nice That. Similarly, there’s a dark drama to this series. The contrast between light and shadow, clever use of reflections and the tangibility of rain or other adverse weather, heighten the intensity of the shots and increase empathy with the isolated dogs. Although it's hard to look through the series without letting out a little sigh, there are some pretty funny moments too.


Martin Usborne: The Silence of Dogs in Cars

“I like the idea of darkness with humour,” Martin tells us. “I’m drawn to chiaroscuro shadows, to colours emerging from near blacks, to the possibilities that lie in hidden corners. At the same time I don’t want to disappear up my own arse, which is also, presumably quite dark. I recognise that in darkness there has to be light, some humour.” Martin explains that the images were inspired by his own anxieties and fears and his own “long tortuous battles with depression”. “However dramatic those battles felt, there is also ridiculousness when you look back,” he says. “Depression can lead to an intoxication with the self, which can get you into some insane mental contortions, like the biggest dogs in the smallest cars. We all take ourselves too seriously.”

’The series was originally published as a large-scale art book with Kehrer Verlag, but with their blessing Martin made the decision to re-release it as a smaller book with Hoxton Mini Press (the publishing house he runs with his wife Ann) to reach a new audience. “I’m really interested in making smaller books at better prices which appeal beyond the usual specialist crowd of buyers,” Martins says.

In terms of the book’s impact, he feels that it will probably do little more than melt some hearts, but in a parallel universe, he’d like it to encourage people to reflect on their relationship with animals and how we often silence them unwittingly, as farm animals, in zoos, as pets and of course, as food. “In this universe, it would also make a good deal of people reflect on those hidden ‘animal’ parts of themselves and in so doing, the world would become more peaceful and happier,” he continues. “But in reality your readers will go straight back to their ham sandwich and fair enough, I say. I used to love ham too.”

GalleryMartin Usborne: The Silence of Dogs in Cars

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Martin Usborne: The Silence of Dogs in Cars

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About the Author

Laura Snoad

Laura is a London-based arts journalist who has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016.

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