First, a backstory on me and how I got to where I am today.
Back in 2000, when I was going to school at the University of Washington majoring in psychology with an emphasis in animal behavior, I was working part-time as a dog walker and pet sitter for a (now defunct) Seattle business called Scoops Pet Services. I spent many a day with client’s pets, feeding them, walking them, snuggling them, loving them.
There was one particular pair of pets- a very old giant mixed breed dog, and his kitty friend, who really stole my heart during an extended in-home pet sitting job. One summer afternoon they were playing together in the hallway of their home, with me sitting on the floor watching, and I said to myself “man, I wish I had a camera here”. I wanted so badly to capture the ‘Kodak’ moments that were happening in front of me. I remembered in that moment that I actually owned a camera- an old Pentax film camera my dad bought for me for my first- and only- photography class I took in high school when I was 17. The next day I went home, got the camera, went and bought some black and white film, and brought it back to the lab mix and kitty and started snapping photos, which began my hobby of pet photography. I photographed all of my dog walking and pet sitting client’s pets over the course of the following three years, all using film in an old basic film camera. (This was just before digital became popular and ‘affordable’). I had NO idea what I was doing, but completely fell in love with it.
During that time my pet photography was driven by nothing more than a) a desire to express myself creatively, b) a wish to capture the unique and amazing moments I saw playing out before me as a pet sitter, and c) a deep and undying love of animals. It was as simple as that. There was really nothing profound about it.
A year after graduating from the UW I decided to turn my hobby into a business upon a recommendation from a friend. I had been in need of a ‘real job’ for over a year, after graduating shortly after 9/11 into a depressed economy, unable to find work despite my best efforts. I never planned to turn my hobby into a business, in fact it wasn’t even something I had considered, simply because it never occurred to me I could make a living doing something I (really) loved. The irony here is that for years, even before going to school at the UW, I had a strong entrepreneurial drive, and always planned to start a business. It just never occurred to me it could be my main passion.
Skip ahead to late in my first year of business- 2003. Although I was a licensed business owner doing paid shoots for clients, I was still doing pet photography more for fun and to fulfill a creative drive than anything else. Along with making prints for clients, I owned some framed prints of my furry clients I worked with at Scoops, and among my personal prints was a triptych of black and white photos I had framed of a good buddy of mine named Knuckles, a goofy, playful, stubborn black lab I adored. I was Knuckles’ dog walker and pet sitter for over five years. That triptych hung on my wall in an Ikea frame, simply because I thought the shots were funny and cute.
Knuckles had gotten sick- very sick- having a stroke that nearly killed him when he was around 11 years old. I went to his house to say goodbye, and had another opportunity to spend time with him before he died. To everyone’s surprise he rallied, and ended up living- and thriving- for another 6-8 months before he eventually succumbed to stroke-related complications. A few days after he had been pooping blood, unable to walk, eliminating on himself, having lost control of half of his body, he was literally running down the street with me, tongue flapping out of his mouth to the side, free as a bird, and happy as a kite. I was astonished, and relished every single second with him. It was bittersweet, because I had a feeling we would still lose him soon, but every moment with him became a celebration of his life. This is when things just started to get a little bit deeper for me.
Sometime shortly after Knuckles’ brush with death, Knuckles’ roommate, a ginormous, fuzzy, manic 115 pound Bernese Mountain Dog named Obie, aptly nicknamed Cujo by anyone who came to the house, developed a very (very) slight limp. Knuckles and Obie’s owners were out of town for the week, when I noticed Obie’s limp. When I say it was slight, I mean it was barely noticeable, and I only noticed it when he walked up and down the stairs. I really think nobody would have noticed it but me or his owners, since we spent so much time with the dog.
I had a feeling, one that I have been able to really hone since then, that something wasn’t right with the dog physically. In fact, something felt very wrong. I called his owners on their vacation back east, explained the situation, and said “I don’t mean to alarm you, but I want to take Obie to the vet. Like right now”. They trusted me, and gave me their blessing to take him.
I immediately put him in my car, and took him to the vet- the same vet I use now for Fergie (the incredible Greenlake Animal Hospital). I met with the doctor, who did a quick exam, and said “It is possible that he fell, or twisted a leg, but I really think there is something more going on here. I think he may have a tumor, and we need to do x-rays to find out”. He was very matter-of-fact, without knowing what my relationship was with the dog or that I had known him and been close to him for years. But I really appreciated his honesty. I knew in that moment that it was serious, and I believed that it was the beginning of the end for Obie. They immediately took him back and took x-rays of his leg and shoulder on the side he had the limp on, and I brought him home and called his owners with an update. All we could do at that point was wait.
Two days later Obie’s owners’ vacation ended and they flew home. The day before they got home we received the lab reports. Obie had cancer. Bone cancer. In his shoulder. His prognosis was, this is where the story gets hard, quick and certain death. The next night he became paralyzed, couldn’t walk, and couldn’t really breathe. He was as sick as an animal can be and still be alive. The day after they returned home from their trip, just a few days after I noticed his limp, they brought him to the vet and put him down in order to end his suffering. I received the news via cell phone while I was driving to their house, camera in my lap, to go photograph Obie before he passed. It was too late. I was sobbing so hard I had to pull my car over to the side of the road. I sat there, with my camera on the seat next to me, overcome with regret and grief, with the engine idling and my foot on the brake, for 30 minutes before I could calm down enough to finish the drive to their house. Although I had photographed Knuckles, because Obie was so spastic and crazy outdoors, I had never really had the chance to photograph him. Aside from two or three badly composed, severely blurry indoor photos I had of him barking, I had nothing. Obie was only 6 years old when he died.
Several months later we lost Knuckles to stroke-related complications. I got the call from his owners, and went to my bedroom, and just cried. Even though we knew it was coming, it didn’t make it any easier. *Nothing* makes losing something or someone you love any easier. So I sat on my bed and cried. I missed him so much already. Through my tears and sadness I looked up, and saw the framed triptych of Knuckles hanging on my bedroom wall, and, through my tears, I smiled. I cried, and I laughed, all at the same time. I thought to myself that although I would never get to ‘see’ him again, like I had come to look so forward to every day for 5 years, I would still ‘see’ him, in my heart, and on my wall- forever. Those simple photos of him became my lifeline to him- my lasting visual memory of a dog I once loved so much, and I knew at that moment that he would always be with me. That was the moment when everything changed. (And yes, I still have the triptych, now nine years later, now hanging on my bathroom wall).
The grief and regret I felt in not having created photos of Obie, coupled with the incredible gratitude I felt for having such precious photos of his buddy Knuckles, made the meaning behind my pet photography business crystal clear:
I’m in the business of giving people lasting visual memories of their family members- tangible, heartfelt, snapshots in time, filled with soul, that truly, genuinely capture each pet’s individual spirit, that last long after the pet is gone. Visual memories that provide a connection between pet and owner, even when the memories of the mind begin to fade. Products that go so far beyond merely a way to decorate a home, and become instead a way to honor an individual who brought such joy, such love, such- meaning- into a human being’s life. I provide a time machine through which people can connect to their most beloved, cherished and adored friends. That is what I create. That is why I do this.
And that, my friends, is profound.
The story of Knuckles and Obie also taught me about life and love. Both are fragile, and unpredictable. One can never truly know what life holds in store. Life is unpredictable, fickle, and oftentimes- wholly unfair. We need to cherish every moment with every fiber of our being- especially when it comes to our pets, because we never know how many days we have left with them.
When I tell someone I am a pet photographer, and they say “Oh how cute”, I just think of the story of Knuckles and Obie, and I know why I do this. I think my clients know, and I know, and that’s all that really matters to me.
I had an old client from 2005 come up to me at an event a few months ago, a client I didn’t remember, and he extended his arms to me in a hug. I’m a hugger so I was open to it, but I still couldn’t place his face. He was already overcome with emotion, tears welling up in his eyes before he even spoke, and in his words I caught his dog’s name, location of the shoot, and his name, and it all came back to me. He wanted to tell me that his beloved dog had passed, and that he was so grateful for the photos I created of her. He recounted a couple of photos in particular that he has hanging on his office wall, and there was no question about how meaningful those images are to him of his girl. He was choking up, all these years later, and we looked at each other in acknowledgement, and I got it, and he got it. Again- profound. This goes beyond any meaning I can ever sum up in a blog post.
I wanted to share my story with everyone reading for two reasons: 1) because this is something I have been thinking about a lot over the past year, and 2) because I want to encourage everyone to have photos taken of their pets.
It doesn’t have to be by a professional, or cost lots of money. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be with a camera phone, or a kid at the local art school studying photography, or your cousin who just picked up a DSLR and is itching to try it out. It can be a cheap mini shoot with a local photographer, or if you have the money to invest, a beautiful full length session with a wall display of products to honor your pet. The point is, just get those photos taken. Do it now. Don’t wait until you have a camera sitting in your lap and then it’s too late, as you sob through your disappointment and grief over not getting any good photos of your beloved pet.
If you need a list of professional pet photographers, you can check out my Beautiful Beasties Member list, with photographers around the world who are just as passionate about what they do as I am. Or contact your local art school or university and see if they have a photography program and need models. If you are interested in working with me, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll get back to you right away, especially if your pet is older and/or sick. I promise to honor your pet the way I would have Obie, with respect, joy, compassion and most of all- love.
Knuckles, circa 2003. I love you buddy. Rest in peace.