By Blake Stilwell
For some disabled service members and veterans, the only constant in the chaos of their lives is their trained service animal. These days, it’s far too easy for anyone to put a vest on their dog and claim it as a service animal.
Fake service dogs are not a victimless “fib.” Dogs that are falsely claimed as service animals can be unruly, attack true service animals or even force businesses to exercise their rights to refuse service animals under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Cris Skinner, a Marine Corps veteran, is out to show just how important service animals are in the lives of those who need them — not just veterans, but anyone who relies on such a companion.
Her idea is to use her talents to show people the power and meaning behind real service animals through two photographic storytelling projects, “The Constant in the Chaos” and “Your Calm in the Storm.”
Skinner is a photographer and former business owner based in Wasilla, Alaska. She first received a service dog after falling ill eight years ago and having to tend to her own needs. Because of her illness, she had to give up her lucrative business. Her dog is unrelated to her military service, but that chocolate Labrador is one of the most vital parts of her life.
“I wanted to bring light to the power of these animals,” Skinner said. “Service dogs give people back their quality of life, even bringing people back from the edge of suicide. There are people who don’t understand that not all disabilities are visible.”
False service dogs cause real issues for those who really need their companions, and that’s what prompted Skinner to start taking photos of service animals and the people who need them. For “Constant in the Chaos,” the well-trained service animal will sit still long enough for the artist to use a slow shutter speed. This means the dog will be perfectly still while everything around them appears blurry.
For “Calm in the Storm,” she will accompany service dogs and their beneficiaries out into the wilds of Alaska to capture the inclement weather as the animals perform their duties.
Skinner is a semi-professional photographer, but both of the projects, along with her photography and choice of subjects, are passions of hers. She’s been taking photos for about six years; these two projects are the first she plans to show the public.
“I want to tell this story; I want to tell the importance of this story,” she said. “And I want to give it some momentum. I want to show these dogs and show the real differences they made. … Most importantly, there needs to be truth to the subject.”
Skinner is looking for veterans with service animals who would agree to be part of her photo projects. Those interested don’t have to reveal their identity and can reach her through the contact page on her website.