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Memorial Commission: Reilly

This image is from a recent memorial commission. These shoots remind us of how difficult being a dog photographer can be. But memorial commissions also reinforce the significance of what we do. It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of our niche. That we’re just a bunch of jokers with a camera who get to play with dogs all day. And more often than not, that sentiment would be correct.

But when it comes to memorial and end of life commissions, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. We thankfully don’t get these every day, but they are hands down the most important service that we offer and driving reason motivating us to found the Puptrait Studio. And, we thought it might be helpful for our visitors with older or sicker pets to learn more about how we work, the philosophies that inform our approach to these commissions and what to expect in those final days.

Most owners wait too long

The one thing I hear most from dog owners is that they wish they had done more – spent more time with their dog, made more memories, took more walks and took more photos. But all too often owners realize this too late. Either their pup was taken from them unexpectedly or the illness they suffer from advances so rapidly that they’re simply too ill to sit for a portrait session.

Most vets are very knowledgeable and as a general rule of thumb I trust the vets I know without question on most issues. But I’ve found time and time again, that even those at the top of their game, have virtually no idea what they’re talking about in regards to estimates of time left, particularly in regards to cancer. I’ve seen dogs live for years with a tumor before it impacts their life. Other times I’ve seen dogs be checked out for a limp and have bone cancer misdiagnosed as a minor sprain, who in 3 weeks time suddenly lack the strength to stand or eat.

If I can stress anything it is this – DO NOT WAIT.

I encourage you to have photos taken of your dog while they are still healthy. Their prime is when you want to remember them and it’s the only way you can ensure against the unexpected.

If your dog has been diagnosed with something serious or potentially life threatening, I encourage you to book a session immediately. We don’t like to reschedule appointments as it’s unfair to other clients, but this absolutely something we regularly make exceptions for. If your dog is at the end of their metaphorical leash, please tell us. We will do everything we can to accommodate your situation.

Let’s face it – pain sucks

Pain is awful. Pain reduces our flexibility – not just physically but mentally and emotionally.  The very sick, old and dying face unique stresses and needs that must be accommodated for. Dogs are no exception.

We forget just how patient dogs are

Dogs give people a ridiculous amount of leeway. Forgiveness in behavior and communication that is rarely ever truly reciprocated. Just think about how angry you would be to find that your pup had an accident on your favorite rug. Now imagine how your dog responds when you get home a few hours later from work, because of traffic, needing to stop at the grocer or one of a thousand other excuses your dog will never understand. They never begrudge you for your failing, they’re simply happy that you’re home (and they’re finally free to relieve their bladder in peace). But that tends to change in the end.

A dog who spent their entire life happily following your seemingly arbitrary rules, like refraining from drinking the perfectly clean water from the porcelain bowl or staying off the giant “dog bed” in the living room, will suddenly do what they want. Your family friendly dog who was so good with your kids when they were monstrous little toddlers, might unexpectedly snap at the slightest provocation. Your perfectly trained companion may no longer be physically capable of following your most basic commands, like sit, come or stay – for a wide variety of age and illness related reasons, including joint stiffness, pain from tumors, blindness and deafness.

Photos are important

When you think about it, photos are tangible representations of memories. Scents may be more closely related to memories, but they fade and more often than not are recalled in passing, often unexpectedly. But a photo is physical. You can hold a picture in your hand or hang a portrait on a wall. It’s why smaller prints are called “wallet sized”. A photo is something you can visit and lean on when you need it.

The importance of photos can be easy to forget, but when working with a terminally ill pet, there’s no denying the weight of the session. More often than not, when the owners contact us they’re already mourning and they know that our work is going to be one of the few things in the next few weeks that might give them solace. And at the end of the day,we only have one shot to get it right. There are no do overs.

This shoot was no exception

Reilly was suffering from a very nasty bout of cancer when we were contacted by her owners. By the time she was brought to us the tumors had already metastasized across most of her body, making it a difficult shoot both emotionally and in execution. The tumors on her haunches had grown large enough that sitting was now an impossibility and the pain, as expected, made her less patient with us and increasingly sensitive to the surfaces she stood or laid on – limiting our options for backgrounds, lighting and other studio considerations. But we made it work.

By using controlled lighting, directed from high above and across the frame, we were able to craft a story that told more than a simple snapshot of a dog. A shoot that didn’t require her to sit, hold a pose or even look away from her human who had become her singular focus in life.

During this session, we weren’t simply capturing Reilly while she was ill or at the end of her life. Rather, we were illustrating how a loyal dog, after years of bringing her family joy, could see a place beyond her crumbling physical shell, somewhere she would find the peace she deserved.

And I believe if you zoom in on this image and look closely at Reilly’s eyes, you can see that this was the story she was trying to tell her owner, but lacked the words to say. A story we were happy to voice and immortalize on her behalf.

 

 

Published by

J.B. Shepard

J.B. is a professional photographer, dog advocate, and founder of the Puptrait Studio, a Baltimore, Maryland based photography company specializing in dog portraiture and commercial pet photography.

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