The world's unlikeliest friends: A German Shepherd, an owl and a hawk phoenix

Tanja Brandt, a 51-year-old German photographer, started her life all over again after suffering a stroke. Her camera’s romance with animals produces some evocative images of friendship and love between unlikely pairs

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Tanja Brandt is an animal enthusiast who reinvented herself after suffering a stroke. That gave her a chance to re-evaluate her life. Taking pictures of her pets and capturing their various moods during her convalescence helped her understand them better and gave her a new lease on life in her new role as a photographer

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Tell us something about yourself?

I was a truck driver before I became a photographer. Trucking was hard work and perhaps the reason I suffered a stroke. I stopped working and concentrated on getting healthy. That's how this phase of my life began. I wanted to showcase the friendship between my dog and owls. You could say my interest is in nature, animals and taking pictures. 

tanja brandt 6 "My dog Ingo, a Malinois, and little owl Poldi. I showed Poldi a camera and he had a lot of fun with it. (Top secret for readers: It's not me who takes the pictures!)"

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tanja brandt 8 "Harris, a hawk phoenix is the most clever girl in the family (I call her my clever little buzzard). She not only has a bag of tricks up her wing, but is quite fast with them. She always sits on the roof at the highest point so that she can keep an eye on everything and everyone. Isn’t it funny? This bench is one of our favourite places, away from our hectic lives."

What got you interested in capturing  animals on camera?

The fascination with the beauty and power of animals, and what you cannot see with your eyes, but through the lens. The most important thing is to touch people with your pictures, no matter in which way. 

tanja brandt 11 "I found these tiny skies in a store. Ingo and his friend's expressions made me laugh. As if they wanted to say, “Oh no! She doesn’t really want us to pose with the skies, or does she?”

From where did you get the animals? 

We can get owls only from breeders. Nothing else is allowed in Germany. I am also a licensed falconer, and that helped. I have three little owls (I donate the owlets to wilderness projects); a white faced owl; a long-eared owl; a great grey owl; an Ural owl; two snowy owls (I bought them because they could not stay in a park and they are old and I hope, they can live some good last years here); a Siberian eagle owl; a barn owl; a Harris hawk and two dogs - a Belgian Malinois female aged 11, and a male Ingo aged 7. We live together, learn together and we experience adventures together. We are family.

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tanja brandt 7 "Lusi and Ingo are a great team. While Ingo is patient, Lusi is incredibly cheeky and curious. He loves to pull Ingo's flews (the thick hanging lips of certain dogs). Before my accident, we were often at the river and loved to watch the flowing water."

Their relationship with each other... 

They love each other. Most importantly, there's respect and trust between them. They cuddle and care for each other. The owls know that the safest place is with Ingo. 

tanja brandt 5 "Probably, the only time Ingo took a bath (not Poldi). It was a fun picture. They were playing in the bathtub, but for the foam, I must admit, I used Photoshop. These two helped me paint my office. We were all soaked in colours by the end of it."

Why owls and dogs over other animals? 

I love (nearly) all animals. But dogs are my favourites. I like their loyalty, wisdom, devotion and power. They would die for me and I would die for my dogs. Owls are completely different. They do what they want to do. People say owls are wise, but they are not (especially snowy owls). The contrast is so interesting. I would love to keep other animals: wolves, cheetahs and so on, but I don't have a big farm or a lot of money.

tanja brandt 2 "They were so excited when they found this green sprinkler from an old building site. It was like a "treasure" for them. They are usually happy about anything they find to play with."

How do you get them to pose? 

Ha ha ha! Owls do not pose. They do only what they want to do. But I can show them a place and tell them: Wow, that's the greatest place ever, it's wonderful...then I let them fly there and they think they have chosen the place on their own.  I let them take charge and take pictures from a distance. And sometimes, I'm outside for hours and can't get even a single shot.  

tanja brandt 10 "Ingo and Poldi share a great bond. It won’t be wrong to call them best friends. We were playing in the snow near our house."

How do you keep them patient for that perfect shot? Have you trained them to be models for you? 

You cannot plan anything in advance. They don't do what I want them to do. But they trust me. Ingo knows that when we are together nothing evil will happen. Training them to be models wouldn't work. Ingo loves being in pictures. He is so proud and whenever I take out the camera, he is in the picture. We go out for a walk, fly, have adventures and I take photos.  Owls are lazy; they don't want to fly a lot. They like to relax, sit and watch the surroundings. 

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tanja brandt 3 "This is one my favourite pictures. It was the beginning of their friendship. Ingo has always protected Poldi. After clicking this picture, the three of us went for a walk around the lake and then sat on a fallen tree to enjoy nature and silence."

How do you select your locations, themes and compositions? 

We walk, play and when we see something nice and interesting, we stop and stay there for a while. Sometimes, we rest and watch wild animals playing. 

tanja brandt 4 "We took a walk outside and it began to rain. It rained like cats and dogs (not literally) and Gandalf didn't want to go any further. So, he searched for security with Ingo."

Some dos and don'ts when shooting with animals? 

Silence and trust. I always talk to the animals calmly and quietly. They must always be sure that nothing bad will happen to them. Never. Patience is the most important. Impatience, pressure, loud noises don't work at all. 

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