For photographer Julia Earhart, helping people capture special moments with loved ones comes naturally.
But when loved ones are pets in their dying days, time is of the essence. That’s why she recently started giving people free ‘end-of-life photographs’, documenting animals the way their owners hope to remember them.
At the heart of Dearborn said she has been an animal lover her entire life, doing everything from supporting local animal 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 Lab-mix Cudi, 8, asked for photos after Cudi’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, Earhart immediately said yes.
âAfter this session, it made me realize how important your bond with your pet, who is sometimes your best friend, can be,â said Earhart. “Pictures aren’t something a lot of pet owners could think of doing, but I know how much I love my dogs and I know how much that would mean to me.”
Nearon, also from Dearborn, rescued Cudi about five years ago after staff at the Humane Society of West Michigan shelter said he was fired for not being the right person. In the meantime, he’s the kind of dog who befriends an intruder if someone breaks in, Nearon said.
Cudi was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma several months ago, a type of cancer that forms in blood vessels. He had surgery to remove a liver tumor in September and is doing better, but Nearon doesn’t think they have much time left together.
Their photoshoot focused on the sentimental little things they love to do together, including snuggling up and going for a walk.
The results, Nearon said, captured Cudi’s gentle nature and the joy he brings her.
âI thought it was going to be this difficult and emotional experience, but it was really happy,â Nearon said. âI am so happy to have captured these moments. It really helped that Julia was awesome. She knew what she was doing and didn’t make it awkward or weird.
After filming, Earhart posted some of the photos to a Facebook group called Downriver and Friends. In her article, she offered other pet owners the opportunity to capture moments with the animals at no cost.
The response was immediate, she said. Many pet owners contacted her just to thank her for her offer, even if they didn’t need her services, she said. Others immediately wanted to schedule sessions with their pets.
Earhart is now coordinating with a few pet owners in the Detroit metro area, she said. She lives in Dearborn but said she would consider driving up to an hour if necessary. She said she takes the free appointments as they fit into her busy schedule, which includes her job as a human resources coordinator and dance teacher.
âIt can be emotionally difficult, but seeing these moments between pets and their people brings me a lot of joy,â said Earhart.
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 ways that owners know and love, like the way a dog’s eyes look in the sun or the way they put their paws up when they are seated. It’s important to document the dog’s mind and do justice to the owner, Earhart said.
Nearon said she recommended Earhart’s work to several friends after seeing the results of her photos with Cudi. She said the memory will be the one she will cherish forever.
âIt was a great way to honor a special part of your family while they’re still here,â Nearon said.
Earhart said she’s not worried that the free sessions will distract from the parts of her business that people pay for. Most people, she said, view the free end-of-life sessions as an act of kindness rather than a downgrading of one’s skills.
âPeople might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a dog, why are you so upset? âBut for a lot of people, their pet is a family member or their child,â she said. “There is a real connection and a lot of emotion that these animals can bring to life in us. To witness that, as a photographer? It fills me with joy.”