As anyone who's owned a pet knows, they can truly be one of life's greatest companions. In many homes, dogs and cats become like a part of the family and they share their love and loyalty in ways we could have never imagined. Minneapolis-based Sarah Beth is a pet photographer who aims to capture animals living in our homes in unique ways. While she snaps adorable photos of dogs and cats in her studio, leaping in the air or laying upside down, she's also become well-known for taking photos of older or sick dogs just before they say their final goodbyes.
Joy Sessions are heartbreakingly beautiful portraits of terminally ill or elderly pets, who soon after the photos are taken, pass away. The name "Joy Session" has a very personal meaning behind it. Joy is actually a Black Labrador who was a service dog to Joan, a a woman living in hospice care. "Joy was her rock, her best friend, and had saved Joan’s life on more than one occasion," Sarah says. "She would let Joan know when her blood sugar was low, and if she was about to have a seizure. Joy would place herself under Joan to break her fall, stand firm to help her up, and was by her side day and night."
While, in this case, Joan was the one with declining health, the conversations Sarah had with Joan sparked an idea. Sarah would offer photo sessions specifically for pets nearing the end of their lives. "For so many people, their pets mean the world to them, and I want to provide an opportunity to capture what makes them so special, especially in such a difficult time," she states. "These sessions really are for people who want to celebrate the happiness — the joy — their pets have brought to their lives."
We were lucky enough to get in touch with Sarah to ask her some questions. The photographer was also kind enough to provide many heartbreakingly beautiful images, which you can see below.
What's one of the stories you could share of a Joy Session?
Kristin the Greyhound was a particularly heartbreaking session. Kristin was diagnosed with bone cancer, and her mom's best friend purchased the Joy Session as a gift. One week later, we photographed her session, and if you didn't know Kristin was sick, you wouldn't have been able to tell. She was happy, excited when I came in, and they had to hold her back from jumping up and running so she wouldn't hurt herself. The entire session was shot under a tree in their front yard, on a beautiful September evening. The very next morning, I received an email saying that Kristin had passed away. I couldn't believe that alert, vibrant dog was gone in just over 12 hours. If we had waited one more day to shoot, it would have been too late. It really shows that we have no idea how much time we have with these creatures.
What do you try to capture in these Joy Sessions?
I enjoy capturing closeness, physical interactions between the owners and the animals. Many of them aren't excited about pictures of themselves, so I try to incorporate them in a more subtle way: just hands on the animal, over-the-shoulder shots that show a connection but not necessarily their faces, or just everyday things like playing fetch that help the owner relax and not feel the pressure of having a 'portrait' taken. I try to capture anything and everything that is important to the owner, to the extent that we're able. It's wonderful when the pets are still looking and feeling good, but I've had quite a few where we can't do anything more than lay on the bed, so we get what we can, and try to give the owners the best possible memories of the shoot.
Typically, how do these pet owners react when they see their photos?
There is a huge sense of gratitude that Joy Session clients have this experience. Often, when I see them again for their ordering session, the animal has passed, and these images may be all they have left to remember them. I have plenty of tissues at the studio, because tears will inevitably be shed while we go through everything together. I send them an online preview gallery, which many clients say has helped them with the grieving process. They're able to look at the photos when they're ready, in the privacy of their homes, as often as they like. Some owners like to come in right away and get products to enjoy, but many others take a very long time to ready themselves for revisiting the images. I've never once had someone say they've regretted doing the session.
What do you hope others get out of these photos?
I hope that others can see and feel the love that flows from these images. I'm trying to capture little snippets of the relationships we share with our pets, to remember certain expressions, or how they played, or gave kisses, or what their fur felt like. So many people have told me how moved they are by some of these images, that they're brought to tears by a picture of someone they've never met. I think by seeing a beautiful image of someone who clearly and unabashedly loves their animals, to see that bond through touch, smiles, glances, it reminds us of ourselves. Pet owners can universally relate to the gravity of these relationships, and the immense loss that comes after their all-too-short lives.