In this episode we talk with Nanette Martin who is the Executive Director, Co-Founder and Lead Photographer of Shelter Me Photography. Nanette left a successful editorial photography career after witnessing how effective her images were in finding homes for some of the lost animals of Katrina. She has photographed close to 10,000 homeless animals close to 80 shelters across the country. Nanette began teaching shelter photography workshops to animal welfare workers and volunteers to improve the lighting and shooting skills of those who capture intake and adoption pictures. Nanette shares her experiences through 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and how to get the perfect picture of a shelter animal. To learn more about Nanette and Shelter Me Photography you can visit them on their website, https://www.sheltermephotography.org/ or on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/ShelterMePhoto/.
Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show.
In today’s program, we’re speaking within the Nanette Martin. Nanette is the executive director, cofounder, and lead photographer of Shelter Me Photography.
Nanette left a successful editorial photography career after witnessing how effective her images were in finding homes for some of the lost animals of Katrina. She has since photographed close to 10,000 homeless animals and close to 80 different shelters across the country. In January of 2013, Nanette began teaching shelter photography workshops to animal welfare workers and volunteers to improve the lighting and shooting skills of those who capture intake and adoption pictures. The response was overwhelmingly positive with reports of measurable increase in adoption rates, and significant boost to the morale of staff members.
Hi Nanette. Welcome to the program. Hi, Chris. So tell us a little bit about you.
Oh, where to start. Well, I started my professional life as an environmental geologist, and I investigated and remediated hazardous waste for 12 years. I had a really bad day at the office. When I closed the door and I called the art institute. I said, “Hey, I want to join”. I forgot how you go to college. I forgot how it all starts and I thought, I’ll just call him and sign up. They said, “Well, you have to go through an interview process. We don’t just take your money”. I grabbed what I thought were my best pictures, and went down to the art Institute. Not quite sure if they just wanted my money because I look at the quality of those pictures now, and I think, Wow, that was very good. I absolutely loved that I aced it. I spent an extra 60 hours a week at this whole printing, processing, and shooting. It was like oxygen. Before I graduated, I had a full-page published in Life magazine. That’s a big picture. Yes, it was from the Matthew Shepard funeral.
Yes. Has photography always been a passion of yours?
Well, let me say this. My father died when I was eight and he was an architect. He always had a camera in his hand. We always did family pictures of holidays. He had all the lights and he knew what he was doing. He and I were best buddies, so I think there might be a genetic component. I’ve always wanted to be a photographer, but I had this thing in my head that, photographers are just the luckiest people in the world because they get to do what they love to do for a living. The rest of us, we have to do a job. Not necessarily what is our passion, but we have to do this job for 60 years, or whatever until we retire. I guess still were 60, not for 60. So in my head I had this feeling or this belief that I don’t know who put it there, that we work until we’re 60. Then we can retire and do things like photography. Do things that we love and have fun doing them. I don’t know where that came from, but I just decided that I was going to go back to school. I was going to learn the science of photography and become a professional photographer. I guess you could say that the idea was always there. It wasn’t something that I thought was possible until… I think the universe, because the universe has been playing a very strong role in my path. It is only now that I can look back and see that that was what was happening. I know that that’s true. At the time, I was just following the current and it sent me back to school. It was my passion. It is my passion. It’s everything. It has taken precedence over personal relationships and just living a comfortable life. It means more to me than creature comforts and a predictable financial future.
So you went back to school. Now, how long ago was this? 1996. Okay, so you graduate from the art Institute. You’ve got all of this education and background now in photography. What’s next?
Well, interestingly enough, there was a film crew that came into town after I graduated. They approached the school asking for a videographer, a student because they were doing a documentary on hate crimes. Matthew Shepard was one of the crimes that were going to be discussed in this documentary and the school suggested that they contact me because I had that picture published in Life magazine. I actually was the first student to graduate from the institute with a 4.0 summa cum laude. I was not that good of a student at Texas A&M. As I said, this was just something that was in my blood. They told them how I had excelled in that perhaps they wanted me on their team. It turned out that that did work out and I became their still photographer. We worked with Judy and Dennis Shepard for a year. We also included Columbine and James Byrd’s dragging in Texas. It was a documentary called “Journey to Hate-Free Millennium” and it was, I guess, you could call it successful. It won a couple of awards, I think. I got to meet Ellen DeGeneres when it opened in in Los Angeles, and that started a path for me.
We did the hate crimes, and then 911 happened. I saw that as a hate crime but that’s not why I went. I went because I couldn’t believe it did happen. I couldn’t believe these buildings were reduced to rubble. I couldn’t believe what I saw on television. So I got in the car and left and drove there. I took a student from the school. We made it in 30 hours from Denver to Hackensack, New Jersey. We were flying. It took us 45 hours to get back. That’s the difference. We stayed about a week, and then I went back because I was approached by a friend of mine who had a dog food company. She sent me to the site, the “New York State Troopers”. They passed on $250,000 worth of donated food because it didn’t have in it enough to keep their dogs going. They were getting their food out of Canada. They weren’t happy with it so she sent them hers, and she’s actually local here to Denver. They kept her food and she wanted a picture of them arriving. I got a picture of that and then I went back because I put together a collage to sell, to raise money, to pay for the food she was sending. I ended up going back four times. The Port Authority police would give me personal escorts down into the hole, looking for this one guy I had photographed. I wanted to use his image in the lithograph in the collage and we could never find him. Every time I went back, they would take me down to the bottom of the hole in November, right when they broke through the bottom. It was extraordinary. Even when the press wasn’t allowed in somehow I got in. So, 911 was huge.
That kept me busy until 2003 and then the Cedar Fire happened in San Diego.I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on TV. I think 2,400 homes were burning. I think 17 people died. I just couldn’t believe it was happening in a major metropolitan area so I drove out there. It’s just like this hand is coming in and putting me where I need to be when I need to be there. I landed right in the center of where the legal fight started regarding this fire and I went out there probably 12 times. I just decided I was going to move out there and I would document it – the recovery effort from there.
Well, two years later, 2005 I was driving back to Denver for an aerial shoot to help a friend out. I stopped at my sister’s on the way and she said, “Oh, by the way, have you seen the storm coming into the Gulf?” I said, “No, what storm?” So turned on the TV and literally the Gulf of Mexico was one big, swirly, round cloud with an eye in the middle of it. Katrina was on its way. Of course, I decided, well, I’m not going back to California. I was going to go from Denver and head to New Orleans.
There’s something I left out. It was in 1999 or 2000, the editor that had bought my picture at Life magazine, moved over to People magazine when Life downsized. I kept bugging her, “Give me a chance, give me a chance”. Finally she called me one day and she says, “All right, here’s your chance. You’ve been bugging me, don’t after that”.It was in New York. Ironically, she sent me out on this job, on a story, for the Allie Foundation. The Allie Foundation got started when a little girl was abducted and went missing. They brought in a bloodhound Yogi and it took the dog… I don’t know how long it took the dog, but the dog took the smell from her bedroom out the door, down the sidewalk, down the street, down the highway, out into a field and found her body. Had they brought Yogi in two days earlier, they say, she would have been found alive. The grandparents started a foundation to bring in bloodhounds, donated blood hounds, trained them, and give them out the police departments.
My work with People magazine started with dogs and rescuing. When I was heading to New Orleans, I called my editor, and I said, “Hey, I’m going down can you use me?” She said, “No, we’ve got everybody in place. Thanks, but no thanks”. On Wednesday she called me and she said, “Look, I need you to hook up with the National Guard coming out of Houston. I can’t get any of my people out of the city”. That started a seven-day tour with the National Guard, where I had five assignments, five rescues. I was supposed to catch her a helicopter rescue, a boat rescue. In fact, I don’t even remember all five because I didn’t get any. We were just simply in the wrong place at the wrong time consistently. We kept finding dogs treading in water for their lives, high centered on a truck somewhere and water all around them. In some areas it was over eight feet deep, and they tried to rescue a couple of them. There were some that wouldn’t rescue, and I didn’t know anything about animal rescue at that time. I had been in one shelter in my whole life. I was probably six, maybe. It was in Houston. It was in the sixties.
It was such a traumatic experience for me. I swore I would never go into another shelter the rest of my life. I have to laugh at the irony, this point, considering how I spend my life now. I didn’t know anything about bullies and I didn’t know there was a liability. There were some bullies that were desperate to be rescued and they wouldn’t even try because they said “If we bring them in the boat, it’s a liability having you in the boat and your assistant”. I mentioned my work as an environmental geologist. I had worked on some of the most contaminated sites on the planet, but I had never seen water as nasty as what I was floating in. I considered for a minute to get out of the boat so that they could get the dogs and bring him in. But I knew that would not be a good idea because I just had never seen anything so toxic. I wrote down where I saw all these dogs, turned that in to the shelter. Lamar Dixon, I said, “Please go get these dogs”.
About a month later, I got three phone calls in three days asking me if I have my dogs back. Finally I said, “Look, what is going on?. Why triplicating efforts? “ Well, it’s just crazy. There are people here coming from all over the world. They’re setting up camps. There’s no central means of communication. Things were just getting duplicated and I said, “Well, what can I do as a photographer?” They said “You could come back and document the St. Bernard Parish Animal Massacre”. I said, What massacre? On the east side of New Orleans, in Chalmette, people evacuated through some schools. The water out there got 20 feet deep. The schools had three storeys. They could get up above the water. They brought their pets with them. After a few days, the sheriff came in and at gunpoint told them, “You’re coming with us. Leave your pets. Rescue will come for them”. They wrote their names and their phone numbers on the wall. Someone wrote, “Please find my dog a good home”. Someone wrote, “These are my Chihuahua. These are her puppies”. There was a Golden Retriever and puppies. There was a Pomeranian. I’m sure there were some Police, but that was not the majority. Someone wrote, “Please don’t shoot my dog”. Well, based on ballistics, it was a sheriff’s deputy that went in and used the cord from the blinds to tie them up, he blindfolded them and he cornered them. He shot them in the stomachs and left them to die horribly painful deaths. No one was ever indicted. The sheriff wouldn’t even post pictures of who was on duty that day so that people could point to them and say, “That’s him”. There was a rescue that went down and picked up the bodies to Pasado’s Safe Haven out of Seattle. It’s six people in the rescue. Five went down and picked up the bodies to do necropsies on them. One of the rescuers committed suicide after that. I went into one of those schools and if there’s anything the fuel’s what I do, it is the experience of going into Beauregard Middle School and seeing what was left behind. I didn’t see the bodies, but I saw what was left behind. I saw the bullet holes in the walls and I saw the messages on both. Sorry, it was the worst, most inhumane thing I’ve ever seen.
That was my introduction into animal rescue. That was the low point, but it was very soon followed by the high point. I learned how bad it can get for rescuers. I learned how they survive. They survived by hanging on to the “saves”. There was a dog, Mercedes, and she was a black Pit Bull. She escaped and a woman found her 59 days after Katrina hit. She had been without food and water, and she survived. She was in the gymnasium and she heard her crying. She broke in, got her, nursed her back to health, and reunited her with her family. The day they were reunited, I was there but I was also there with every news agency you can imagine filming this event. While Mercedes had been missing, the couple,it was a young couple, and they’d had a baby. I got to see Mercedes, meet this infant for the first time, and see her get reunited with with the couple, and it helped, It helped.
The reason I do what I do is because of the internal flame that got lit that day. I realized what incredible and courageous warriors that are out there rescuing and caring for family members – four legged, furry family members that deserve so much better than what they’re being dished out. For whatever reason, this idea that dogs and cats are property and treated as such in parts of the United States, I don’t know where that started. I don’t know why it continues – this idea that we can use them to make money, to breed, and sell them. For every backyard birth, there is a death in a shelter. There are no bad animals in shelters. I have photographed over 10,000 of shelter pets. I have never photographed a bad animal. I’ve never photographed one that could not be worked with and helped. They get off track because of what we do to them. We’re their stewards. We’re responsible. We domesticated them. It’s up to us as a species to take care of them.
Shelters today are overflowing. I just spoke with one this morning. Yesterday they put 60 cats down yesterday, 60 cats. You fill a room with 60 cats and think about how much death that is. How much joy that could have been. Somebody thinks it’s a good idea to let their cat have kittens and sell them. What is a life worth? What is the going rate for a life, for joy, and for somebody to have a companion? What is that worth? Twenty dollars to somebody? What is it doing to the people in those shelters that are the ones that are having to put the 60 cats down? I’m sorry, but if you think that there’s somebody that enjoys euthanizing animals, you’re dead wrong. These people are suffering. The animals are suffering. The people are suffering.
So what is my role? I mean, I’ve been given a gift that I’m able to go into a shelter and I’m able to photograph these pets. I can connect with them. In a matter of seconds, I can capture. I could take the shelter out of them without taking them out of the shelter. People can see past the bars, past the cages, and past the poop in the corner, the pee in puddles, the smell, and the noise. They can just see the jewel that I see that I know is there. Go and get that animal. Go and get the doggie. Take him home. Love him and cherish him. There’s just too much death. There’s too much killing. There’s too many of them and we can control that. This is not a market. These are lives with beating hearts. I like to tell my classes when I teach that we live in a society where… I like the word gazillions. I think it’s technically. I think it’s accurate because we spend zillions of dollars on marketing for things that we don’t need. Somebody invent stuff, convinces people that they need it, but it’s really just so they could make some money. Here we have a community that has a product, so to speak, with a beating heart and not a penny to spend on marketing. There’s an expiration date on these animals, and sometimes it’s only a few hours by the time I photographed them. I had a shelter in Texas. I got there too, and there was 10 on the list to be put down at 5. I have 3 hours to photograph these dogs. Just because I showed up, because I photographed them, that gave them a stay of execution, so to speak, for a day, to see if the pictures would work. And 9 out of 10 got out.
Such an amazing story you had Nanette and the journey to get you to where you are now. What made you decide that you need to do more and that you need to travel the country and teach people how to photograph?
The last few years, I have not been as active as I would like. It’s been eating me up the last two or three years that I’ve not been able to do as much as I would like. Purina has been our sponsor since 2013, and they have literally kept us alive. We have a contract with them. They are very supportive. They provide all of the lighting and the equipment that I get to donate to shelters. They would send me out a couple of times a year to shelters to teach workshops. I never felt like that was enough. The need is so great. You go to one shelter and there are three other ones in that community that need help.
Since my father died, I haven’t felt like I had a home. I’ve just been moving every year, and I got tired of it. I thought, well, this last time I moved, I’m not going to go run to another place. I’m going to buy an RV. I’m going to go on the road and take my house with me. I’m going to go to as many shelters as I can until I die literally, or until I just physically can’t do this anymore. So we put up a post on Facebook. We said, “Does your shelter want a workshop? Let us know”. We have about 40 responses. From that 40, they recommended another 30 that we contact. I contacted about 70 or 75 shelters. I don’t really know. We probably got 50 of them to commit. We started in Arizona at a shelter that Purina wanted us to go to, but what has happened is that with every shelter we go to, there’s about three I end up adding on. At this point, we’re three times the shelters and we’re behind, but we don’t want to turn anybody down.
It’s a huge effort. We don’t have enough people. We need, like a 10-person team. There’s two of us making it happen. The need is just so great. It’s driving. It’s the fuel. It is driving the motivation. It’s providing the energy to keep doing this. Every shelter I go to the workers and volunteers are so hungry for the knowledge and the skills. If you think about it, this is not just helping the animals. It’s giving the people who care for them a tool. It’s giving them some control over the fate of the animals that are in their care. So that when they drive home at night, they don’t have to cross their fingers, kneel at their bedside, and pray that these animals find a home. They actually can do something to make that happen and for anybody that doesn’t believe or doesn’t understand the power of a photograph when it comes to the life of a shelter pet. I have about 36 that I know. I was told “We had the needle in one hand and your picture in the other, and we put the needle down because we simply could not kill that animal after looking into its eyes”.
To go one step further, a veterinarian out of New York shelter worked at the shelter, met all the dogs, treated the dogs, and saw the dogs every day. He don’t want one of the dogs until he saw our picture of one of the dogs. He adopted the dog that he had already met and didn’t want, until he saw the picture. He wanted it and he adopted it. So the power of an image absolutely can save a life.
So when you’re behind the lens Nanette, how do you bring out the personality and how do you bring out that special picture in the animal?
I don’t want to say I don’t know but the truth is it takes a lot of practice. There’s an intuition. You have to look at the animal and get a feel for the state it’s in. If it’s a perfectly crazy dog, it seems happy, and it seems well balanced, I’ve got special noises for that dog. If it’s a scared dog, I don’t use noise. It will scare them even more. You can do things that cause more problems for yourself. It’s a matter of finding a way to connect with the animal, using noise and using movement. I teach my class there’s three things you got to have. You got to have patience. You got to have a sense of humor. You got to have a camera. If you don’t have patience or a sense of humor, you don’t need the camera. Just go home. Just don’t do it. This is such a unique, specialized field of photography. It deserves its own place as a discipline, separate from pet photography. I know pet photographers that do it for living but could not go into a shelter and be successful because the challenges are so unique, different, and extreme. There’s the burden of capturing an image that could save a life, having that on your plate, getting it processed in time, and turned around.
So what do you recommend to somebody that’s listening that says, “You know, you are so inspiring. I want to do it and your doing it”. Where did you start?
It would be great if you could come to one of our workshops. We charge a whopping $25. You learn about a semester’s worth of photography. If you can’t make it to a workshop things I recommend one. We always use the blue background. It doesn’t clash with any color for it. It’s a calming color and makes the animal pop. If you don’t know a whole lot about photography, it’s a forgiving color. I started out using a natural background. I get a lot of resistance from trained photographers. We’re going to use natural. Well, the thing is, we take the leash out of the picture. We take the leash out. There’s something psychological. I won’t shoot bars. I won’t shoot cages. I don’t want anything in that picture that’s going to suggest that the animal needs to be restrained.
So keep your picture clean. Keep the background clean. Don’t junk it up. Don’t dress your dog up. Don’t put a hat on it. Don’t put a bow on it. There are people out there that get offended by that. They’re not even going to look at your pictures. Why would you want to offend somebody that might take that dog home out the front door and instead it has to go out the back door. So don’t rush dogs up. Shoot from eye level. Shoot straight across. Get down low. I use an adjustable height table, two feet by four feet. I put the short end towards me so that they have to stand lined up looking at me. I use a blue rubber mat so that the foreground is this clean. I let the dog and cat sell themselves and I don’t put props. I don’t use props.
I feel like if somebody’s going to adopt an animal because they had a hat on or because they had a profit, that’s the wrong reason to adopt an animal. I want them to connect, have an emotional reaction when they look at the picture. Well, for that to happen, there’s only one feature on an animal that’s going to generate an emotional reaction. That’s the eyes. The eyes have got to be looking into the lens because if they’re looking in the lens, then they’re looking at the person looking at the picture. If there’s going to be a connection, that’s where it’s going to happen – through the eyes to the heart. People have taken our pictures into the shelter, showing the pictures and say, “I want this dog”. We’re like, “Don’t you want to meet the dog?” “No, I want to this dog”. “How about you meet the dog?” “This is my dog. I want my dog. Give me my dog. I want to go home with my dog”. Well, of course they meet the dog but they’ve already made up their mind because they had that connection.
You get down low. Shoot straight across to keep it clean. You feel the frame with the animal. A lot of the amateur photographers are… They don’t think to turn the camera up vertically, but you turn the camera vertically. You cut out the background and you feel the frame with the pet. So you want to fill your frame with information about the pet. You’re not selling backdrops, your doctoring the animals.
You want to connect with the pet. You got to come up with a way to make that pet look into your lens. So everything you do has to happen from behind the lens. A dog is going to look where the noise comes from. When you start off, you have certain cards you can play to get that dog to do that. My first card I play is usually a noise. It comes out of my mouth because my mouth is right behind the lens conveniently located. If that doesn’t work, I’ll grab a squeaker and squeak it underneath my lens. Everything happens around the lens. If that doesn’t work, I’ve got to ask somebody to come and help me. When I start off, I don’t want anybody else in front of that dog. This is like a game of controlling what you can control. When you could do that you can increase your odds of becoming successful. The dog’s going to be looking at every new thing that happens out in front of him, so if I need somebody to help me, that’s something new. If they walk out, the dog is looking at them. If they come in and squat down behind me, I’m ready to shoot, and I got my camera on the dog. With the dog following that person, they squat down, he’s looking right into my lens, and at that point, I could get that picture.
There’s a myriad of things we’re going to have a person do. Everything they do, though, is going to come back to that point behind the lens. They’re going to draw the attention to the lens. That is so important. I can’t emphasize how important it is to have that animal looking into your lens because people don’t connect with ears. They don’t connect with tails and they don’t connect with spots. They connect with eyes and for that animal to share its energy and spirit that comes through the eyes. Just control the traffic that’s around your site. There are so many things that can make this difficult. My job is not just to make it easier and not just to teach them tools that work. What I teach works, because if it didn’t work, I left it behind. It’s also to motivate them to make them want to do it and it’s got to be successful in order for them to keep doing it. Nobody wants to go put that kind of an effort in and get crappy pictures.
As you embark on your 2017 tour, it just sounds like you’re going to be leaving here in the next week or so. What’s your hope? What’s your mission?
It’s multilevel. The ultimate mission is to change the way society perceive shelter pets when 25% of the animals in shelters are purebreds. If you’ve got to have a pure bred, you could still shop in a shelter and get one. It’s to change the horizon for shelter, pets. If we’re going to make a lasting change, we do have to change the way people think. Even with 911, I saw a change in the way people behaved for a couple of months, but then it went back. It wasn’t enough to change like a real change. It’s a big challenge to try to change the way society thinks, but it can be done. Photography is a very powerful tool in making that happen, just by showing the true nature of these animals. It’s not just the public that we have to change – their thought process, shelters and management. We offer free service yet we have shelters that don’t accept it. I said, “We got a photographer”. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. I’m sorry, but your photographer it’s not doing the job, and lives are being lost as a result. So let’s, well, let’s just come in and help”. So we’ve got to tweak the way management thinks about photography. It’s a very powerful tool. They send their people to training, pay for that training, but it doesn’t necessarily have a direct effect on adoptions. Whereas when we come in, you’re going to see an immediate improvement, but there’s no money for that. We’re struggling. We need to change the mindset of the shelter management. The public, educate the public, increase adoptions, get the animals out of the shelters, and reduce the need for shelters. I would love that one day I wake up and I don’t have a job. There’s no need for me right now, please, working me out of the job, but also to emphasize with shelter management that they don’t operate in a bubble, that every marginal picture of a shelter pet affects the entire shelter community.
Every shelter pet needs to have great pictures up online. We don’t need any bad pictures because the Internet reduces geographical distances. So somebody that’s in the backwards of Louisiana, where they’re at a shelter with an 85% kill rate, 85% of the animals are not going to leave that shelter at the front door. They click in a fraction of a second and they can see Portland, Oregon where they have a 99% live release rate. If Portland doesn’t have great pictures of shelter pets, this person doesn’t know that they have a great progressive community. It doesn’t matter. They just see crappy pictures of shelter pets so they think, “Well, jeez, shelter pets are just crappy all over the place. I’m going to go buy mine”. Everybody’s connected. The network cannot be severed and animals, they’re in one location one day, and get transported across the country the next. That’s why we travel. Animals in Colorado didn’t necessarily start here. It came from New Mexico. They came from Kansas. They came from Missouri. We have a very progressive community here, they will get adopted out most of the shelters. We even have our shelters that are blighted, are really struggling, and have very high kill rate. So, I don’t know. One mission? Save lives.
That’s a really good mission. Is there anything else Nanette that you wanted to share with everybody before we close out?
Treat him better. Get your get your pets spayed and neutered. I get the argument that God didn’t intend for my male dog to live like that as a neutered male. Well, I can promise you that God didn’t intend for the dogs that are going to be put down to live the life they’re going to live because you did not get your dog fixed. You’ve got to think outside of the bubble. You’ve got to think about the other ones that are affected. For everyone that’s born in a backyard, there’s one being put down in a shelter, and I probably am going to have to look into its eyes. Let’s say a little prayer and hope that somebody good finds him. We can do better. We’re their stewards. We could do better.
Very true. Well, thank you, Nanette. I appreciate you coming and sharing your story and your tips. We look forward to connecting with you when you’re back in Denver after this trip.
Well, thanks so much for doing this, Chris. Every little bit helps and this is not a little bit. This is a big bit. So thank you for what you’re doing.
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