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The Drama Behind the Lens: Stories from the Secret World of Pet Photography

By Sarah Sypniewski

bark pet photography 1

Pet photography is all the rage--professionals abound, as mantles and Facebook pages nationwide can attest. As half of an L.A.-based pet photography business, I can tell you that the final images reflect but a fraction of the experience. Sometimes, I wish our clients could see what we go through behind the scenes. Mostly though, I’m grateful they can’t. Let me tell you--some of those moments are not pretty. None of that matters now, however, because I’m digging into the deleted files, talking about shots that almost never were, and recalling the sessions that I’ll never forget--all for your entertainment.

Can I Lay In That For You?

We encounter occupational hazards you might expect: slobber showers, furry nostrils, and client pee all over our stuff, but then there’s the poop. Yep. That’s right. Caca. Doodie. The ol’ stink pile. We often shoot in our clients’ yards and they go to great lengths scouring every blade for landmines. Inevitably, they miss something. Maybe it’s in an out-of-the-way corner, blends in with the rock garden, or Dino dropped a stealthy deuce right before we got there. However it arrives, one thing’s certain: Kim (the photographer of the operation) will find it.

Once, we were photographing a rescue pal’s pack. The yard was green as far as the eye could see (and the nose could sniff). We were really into the shoot - everyone was having fun, the dogs were crawling around in the grass, and Kim got down with them. Instead of watching her back, I cooed over the dogs and kind of forgot about Kim until she cried, “AUUUGH! I just rolled in poo!” Yep, that was poo alright--and it was mushy. Ankle to knee. Not an inch spared. Worked right into the fabric. We had no choice but to turn the hose on her. She then resumed shooting, jeans dripping. Since then, it’s become a talent of hers: if there’s a ninja poo in your yard, Kim will lay upon it for you, no extra charge.

The Computer Ate Our Photos!

Truth be told, we’d rather be in deep doo doo literally than figuratively, which can happen when technology goes rogue. The capabilities of this digital age are amazing, but when things go wrong, it’s terrifying. There’s card corruption, software malfunction, and inexplicable camera shutdowns. We’ve had a major tech failure only twice, but still - I break out into a cold sweat just typing about it.

Recently, we did a shoot with a woman, her son, and their two dogs. The shoot went well, considering it hinged on her elderly Bulldogs and hyperactive 6 year-old making it through 3 costume changes. When we got home, Kim made herself comfortable in front of the iMac and slid the memory card into the reader to upload the photos. Then she jumped up and rushed to the laptop - the files weren’t there. And so commenced the war between denial, desperation, and hope. Our hearts pounded 12,000 miles a minute, our heads felt like they were on a Tilt-o-Whirl, and our hands shook beyond ability to control our now-moot mouse. We performed frantic eject-reboot-insert maneuvers while Googling error codes and replaying the moments that led up to this as we both mentally chanted, “We can fix this, we can fix this…” It was part threat, part mantra, part prayer.

Then we jumped ahead to when we’d have to tell the client that everything is gone and we don’t know why and we swear we’re professional and we’ll come back right now and won’t charge them anything and we’re so sorry. While we rehearsed our mea culpa, we threw a Hail Mary and ran recovery software on the files. After sixty agonizing minutes of fighting the urge to puke, the files all came back. We were SO lucky. The client never knew (although she might now), and the photos turned out so well, she ordered a dozen extra.

Someday, You'll Be Glad You Have Them

When it comes to the end of a pet’s life, there is no recovery software, so when clients call us about sick or elderly pets, we do whatever we can to get there in time.

Many years ago, our friend Leslie rescued a pup named Oliver from his guard post at a junkyard in Oakland. He was a big meanie at first, hating a world who hated him - well, except for Leslie. He softened as he aged, though. Through the years, Oliver welcomed new pets into the pack, and when a new human came (Leslie’s now-partner, Josie), Ollie loved her, too.

He was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago, well into his life. Leslie and Josie prepared themselves for a swift decline, but Oliver kept living. He carried a tumor around that grew consistently, but other than that, he was no worse for wear. Perhaps his early years of defending his territory had steeled him for this battle.

Leslie and Josie still knew he could go anytime, so when we started our business, Josie called: “I know it’s far, but Oliver’s really getting old, and I want to surprise Leslie with photos of him while we can get them. Would you come?” We agreed to squeeze it in while in San Jose for an event. It meant getting up early the day after our late-night event, driving 100 miles round-trip out of our way, and then getting back to the airport to catch our flight on time. The logistics seemed complicated, but none of that mattered.

Oliver posed near his pool and amidst the foggy redwoods on his hiking trail. When we were done outdoors, Josie took us inside for the reveal to Leslie. At first, Leslie was embarrassed by our sudden arrival; she “wasn’t presentable.” She didn’t want herself in the photos, despite me saying, “someday, you might be glad you were.” She did housework while we shot. But then, Leslie appeared while we photographed Ollie on his window seat. She stood there for a bit. Maybe she thought about everything they’d been through. Or maybe she flashed forward to what could be around the bend. Whatever the reason, she spontaneously joined Oliver. And when she did, Kim caught it: Leslie’s arm over Ollie’s shoulders, her hand resting on his tumor, face buried in his. Even then, the image of their pure love mixing with the acknowledgment of the inevitable broke my heart wide open. Oliver lived two years beyond that photo, succumbing just this past Labor Day.

It could’ve been easy to let the obstacles prevent us from photographing him that day long ago - and Josie would’ve understood - but in this world where things can literally change in a second, we prioritize these shoots. We can’t stop time, so we make sure the humans who will eventually be left behind get their shots - even if they don’t yet know they want them.

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