It is with mixed feelings I announce Wean's retirement.
After years of working alongside me, both in photography and paint, it is time for him to begin his next set of adventures. Those are primarily sleeping, weighing down my lap, and eating.
I'll miss being with him in the office.
We've joked about his declining work ethic. He hasn't been able to jump on my desk in ages. I often lift him into my lap because he isn't steady enough to get there on his own without removing skin from my thighs. He sleeps in. He's late for meetings.
He still shows up, though, and that means a lot to me. It's time for him to enjoy his life in a new way.
This month Wean turned 16. He's also been showing signs of cognitive decline, and it's happening faster than we expected. He lives with confusion and more intense needs for comfort and connection than he's had before (which is significant because his previous needs were already exceptional). We live with the odd vocalizations we refer to as meowling and the uncertainty of knowing when and where we might next discover cat vomit.
Wean is so much more than an office cat. He's the one I talk through my work with when I feel stuck. He assures me that things will always work out, even if it doesn't feel that way. He helps me feel my grief, for our family as well as the families I serve. He is never far away from me.
I could not ask for a better companion and partner in this journey. While I am broken up about doing this without him, I know it's time for him to sleep more and check in with me less.
He has been my assistant for years. It's my turn to serve him.
Dexter is one of 100 Stories.
He and his person met on a blind date, as she called it. He was on Petfinder looking for a family and had no profile photo. Although he was only six months old, he had lived most of his life in a backyard.
She took him home; they became family.
This is the part where you may want to have tissues handy.
In Dexter's lifetime he experienced many health challenges, and when he was four he died from an especially severe case of pneumonia.
She credits Dexter for the valuable lessons she learned while they lived together. Family is everything. A peaceful warrior is the most fierce. Joy matters. Humor and grace are strengths, not weaknesses.
I have the honor of listening to dozens of these stories every year, and I marvel at the intensity and purity of these relationships. This is an incredible love.
Dexter's poem was especially personal and powerful (I cry every time I read it, but that's not saying much). Like most of the other poems from 100 Stories, it is deeply personal and it doesn’t feel right to share it.
Dexter was a part of the 100 Stories project, which was a limited edition offer that ended January 2019. Pop art remains available in wall art sizes, and poetry is also available.
Care to guess how many times in a week I hear people say that they'd love to be able to do what I do?
Photography is a skill that can be learned. At some point, even people that have a knack for it work on improving their abilities when they adopt it as a profession.
Honestly, photography is the easiest part of a photography business. Marketing, service, all the legal stuff . . . those are the things that tend to be most challenging. They are also learned skills.
I am opening applications for mentorship in 2019 because I want to help other people create incredible lives for themselves through photography. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have created this business for myself and my family. I went from being "disabled" from a chronic illness to thriving because I gave myself the freedom to make this work.
It requires consistent, focused work. You'll have to do things that might be uncomfortable. It can take a while before you see your seeds sprout. The ultimate outcome is being able to give people the gift of meaningful connections to their memories and love and support yourself at the same time.
Honestly, how does life get better than that? And hanging out with animals and their people (with whom I share a sacred language and connection) . . . sign me up!
You really can do this. Just think about it for a bit. If you could trade your job that you like some days for one that made you excited to get out of bed every day, would you?
Applications are open for mentorship in 2019. The terms are flexible - we'll talk about what you want to make happen and design something to support that growth that also sticks within your budget. I promise it will be fun, because when it stops being fun you'll stop doing the work. And if you are local, you'll have the opportunity to apprentice with me on some of my sessions.
I floundered for seven years after I started by first photography business to make this a full-time career. I was doing so many things I thought were helpful and really weren't. If this is the way you want to go, I want to help you get there in less than seven years. Like, in one year or less. Please let my copious mistakes be your guide. :D
You can find the application online (https://bit.ly/2QzQGkI), and of course you are welcome to send me a message or leave comments here with any questions you have.
Occasionally I "shop" for photographers in the area to find others I would recommend to families. I may not be the right choice for a variety of reasons, and when we figure that out I want to be ready with a recommendation or two of a photographer I think would be a great match.
I noticed a pattern the last time I shopped online: in each of the 14 websites I visited, the photographer promised to "capture the personality" of you pet or something that sounds a lot like that.
A good photographer reflects the personality and mood of the subject. I want to see personality.
I like that. I want to see personality. I also want to see more than personality.
I'm after soul, not personality.
I want the story. I want to feel like I am diving into the world of whoever is in front of the lens. I want to see personality, sure. That's just the beginning.
I want to feel something. When I look at the photograph later, I want to have a visceral reaction of feeling about the animal. More importantly, I want you to see your cat in print and feel her in the room with you, even if she isn't. I want you to look at the photograph of your dog and feel the essence of him.
I can't do any of that if I focus on personality. My goal is beyond that.
When I read a book or watch a movie, I want to follow the hero's story. There is a protagonist I am rooting for, and she is on a journey. An author or screenwriter or director that concentrated on making her personality known page by page or scene by scene would have something that almost no one wants to read or watch. The hero is more than personality. She has values. She has history. She has dreams and quirks. She has a core that wraps all of that up and makes her who she is. If an author, screenwriter, or director can convince me that I know the hero, I'm all in. That's the kind of experience I want, because if I'm going to tag along on the journey, I want to be invested in it.
Your animal is the hero in his own story. He's had ups and downs. He's fought battles and learned lessons. His personality comes through in all of that, and yet it's the deeper stuff that shows who he is while he is on his hero's journey that endears you.
You know every little thing about him. He deserves to be represented as more than personality. He deserves to have his story told, and you deserve to see it in a way that's going to put him right there beside you.
At the beginning of each year, I review the prior year and look for patterns. I revisit my lessons. I see where I have grown and where I could use help. I also do this for every quarter, month, week, and day.
Since 2014 I've been representing the year past with one photograph, along with the story that goes along with it. Every year brings new challenges with this because there are so many gorgeous, connected, life- and love-affirming photographs I have the good fortune to create.
For 2018, this was pretty easy. Despite 2018 being the year I cried the most at work; despite 2018 being the year I connected with more families than I ever have for senior and end-of-life photography; despite 2018 being my best year in terms of skill and ability with a camera . . . it simply comes down to feeling.
My photography students hear me tell them over and over again that photography is more about connection and intention than gear and technical skill. The families I sit down with to plan photographs remark that one of the first things I ask them is "How do you want to feel when you see these photographs?"
This photograph may not mean much to you, and that's okay. I created it for me.
It's dark. The details are hard to see. Someone who didn't know this scene might have to search for what is important.
It's all right there in the middle.
Rhys and I are snuggled on his sofa. This was the week before he died; four days before I began my vigil with him.
Of all the places in our home, this is where Rhys wanted to be. He could see into the kitchen. He could see the front door. He could see who was going upstairs or coming downstairs. He could see the front yard. I have dozens of photographs of Rhys in various stages of rest on the sofa, often tucked under a blanket with his head propped on a pillow.
On this day, I pulled out my camera and tripod, set up my remote shutter release, and photographed us as I told Rhys all of the things I wanted to say. I thanked him for being in our family. I apologized for so many, many things. I marveled at how he changed our lives and would continue to do so. I told him I loved him.
I cried. I hugged. I sniffled. I listened. Oh, listening to his heart - his gentle, erratic heart that was days away from stopping - was glorious. Even with my head on his hip I could hear it.
I felt him. I smelled him. I soaked in every bit of him I could, knowing that this might be one of the last quiet opportunities for this kind of connection.
This is my photograph of the year for 2018 because it is the most impactful for me. I see this and the tears start right away. I usually need to sit down. The emotions I experience are so overwhelming I feel as though I am in this moment again in all the best ways.
That's what photography is meant to do.
You and I, we are lovers. We are givers. We are also the people most likely to be behind the camera rather than in front of it.
There are very few photographs in my collection where I am in the frame. Almost all are from professional photographers I hired for annual family portraits, and a few are from my husband. I knew I had the tools to do something different, and I knew what I wanted to see and how I wanted to feel. I knew I wanted to see me in it, because this love story between Rhys and I is something I've never seen in the third person.
Friend, do not write yourself out of your own history. Be seen. I can promise you that when you look back on these photographs later you might roll your eyes about your wardrobe choices or hairstyle; what you are going to see and feel is the connection you had in that moment. As the years go by and it seems harder and harder to access that connection, you will thank your lucky stars you have photographs to help plug you back in.
I'm counting on it.
What do you do for the dog who has everything?
Design a t-shirt, of course.
While Scoutie the cockapoo wasn't the recipient of this t-shirt design, I like to think he was pleased to see himself in this way. It's like he has a campaign or his own private brand of awesome.
Which, from what I learned about him, seems completely accurate.
Scoutie's human asked me to come up with art for a shirt so she could outfit every member of her family (except Scoutie - he did not receive a shirt). She wanted her family to feel his vibe when wearing their shirts, even when Scoutie wasn't around.
One of the first things she said to me was that he was part king and part clown. What a description! It felt to me like he needed his own brand. He wanted to be recognizable. He wanted to be like the dog version of Coca Cola or Nike. And as dignified and regal as he can be, he's also goofy and a bit rough around the edges.
Viola! A vintage design for his old soul that is simple and breaks down the essentials. I think that's what he would do for himself had he design skills and opposable thumbs. I was on my way to distressing this design for him when he said, "Stop! I like it tidy."
Honestly, what could be better than art you can wear?
If a t-shirt or other logo-like design is just what you need to honor your animal family, please send me an email or a message through Facebook @slobberedlens.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.