For ailing pets and their owners, photographer uses a soft lens

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

For photographer Julia Earhart, helping people capture special moments with the ones they love comes naturally.

But when loved ones are pets in their final days, time is short. That’s why she recently started offering people free “end-of-life shoots,” documenting the animals the way their owners hope to remember them.

Earhart of Dearborn said she’s been an animal lover her entire life, doing everything from supporting local pet rescues to sponsoring senior dogs. She has two dogs, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever, Benny, and a 1-year-old Golden Retriever-mix, Bonnie.

So when  Annelise Nearon, owner of 8-year-old Lab-mix Cudi, reached out to ask for photos after Cudi’s terminal cancer diagnosis, Earhart immediately said yes.

Annelise Nearon and her dog, Cudi.

“After that session, it made me realize just how important your bond with your animal, who is sometimes your best friend, can be,” Earhart said. “Photos aren’t something a lot of pet owners might think about doing, but I know how much I love my dogs, and I know how much that would mean to me.”

Nearon, also of Dearborn, rescued Cudi about five years ago after shelter staff at the Humane Society of West Michigan said he was returned for not being the right fit. In the meantime, he’s been the kind of dog who would befriend an intruder if someone broke in, Nearon said.

Cudi was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma several months ago, a type of cancer that forms in the blood vessels. He had a surgery to remove a tumor in his liver in September and has been doing better, but Nearon doesn't think they have a lot of time left together.

Annelise Nearon and her dog, Cudi.

Their photo shoot focused on the small, sentimental things they love to do together, including snuggling and going for walks.

The results, Nearon said, captured Cudi’s sweet nature and the joy he brings her.

“I thought it was going to be this hard, emotional experience, but it was really joyful,” Nearon said. “I am so glad to have those moments captured. It really helped that Julia was great. She knew what she was doing and didn’t make it awkward or weird.”

After the shoot, Earhart posted some of the pictures to a Facebook group called Downriver and Friends.  In her post, she offered fellow pet owners the chance to capture moments with the animals at no cost.

The response was immediate, she said. Many pet owners reached out just to thank her for the offer, even if they didn't need her services, she said. Others immediately wanted to schedule sessions with their pets.

Earhart is now in the process of coordinating with a few pet owners around Metro Detroit, she said. She lives in Dearborn but said she would consider driving up to an hour if needed. She said she is making the free appointments as they fit into her busy schedule, which includes working as an human resources coordinator and a dance teacher.

“It can be emotionally challenging, but witnessing these moments between pets and their people bring me a lot of joy,” Earhart said.

Annelise Nearon and her dog, Cudi.

Photographing dogs can be more difficult than photographing people, she said, given distractions like squirrels or people walking around. But the biggest challenge is capturing the most important mannerisms that owners come to know and love, like the way a dog’s eyes look in the sunlight or the way they put their paws when they sit. It’s important to document the dog’s spirit and do justice by the owner, Earhart said.

Nearon said she recommended Earhart’s work to several friends after seeing how her pictures with Cudi turned out. She said the memory will be one she cherishes forever.

“It was a great way to honor a special part of your family while they’re still here,” Nearon said.

Earhart said she isn’t worried about free sessions drawing attention away from the parts of her business that people pay for. Most people, she said, see the free end-of-life sessions as an act of kindness instead of a devaluation of her skills.

“People might say, 'oh, it's just a dog, why are you so upset?' But for a lot of people, their pet is their family member or their child,” she said. "There is a real connection and a lot of emotion that these animals can bring out in us. Witnessing that, as a photographer? It fills me with a lot of joy."

Twitter: @Hayley__Harding