Squamish's Roberta Holden captures stunningly joyous and impactful images in the final days or even hours of pets' lives.
Pet photographer Holden takes pictures of all animals — from chickens to cats throughout their lives.
End-of-life photography is a niche she fell into.
The Squamish Chief caught up with Holden, who moved from Vancouver to Squamish about seven years ago, for a sometimes emotional conversation about her photography, what she has learned along the way about animals and our relationship with them.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Were you always into photography? How did it start for you?
I got into photography after my undergrad. I did an undergrad in geography, which had no career in the end. And so I was sort of just drifting around, and I borrowed my mom's SLR (single-lens reflex) film camera to take on a four-month trip. I had no idea how to use it. I just put it on automatic mode. I realized that I didn't know what I was doing. So, when I got back, I took a basic photography course. And then that led to a photography diploma.
And then, how did that lead to pet photography?
It was in the back of my mind years ago, but to be honest, at the time, it was more like a backup plan because I was really pursuing photojournalism. And that was my passion. And then I had a series of head injuries, and I couldn't photograph any more for a long while. I couldn't look at a computer screen because my eyes would start burning. And so I just couldn't be a photographer for a time. Then I just started working as a dog walker.
When COVID hit, many clients didn't need me, so my pack went down. The smaller numbers made it easier just for me to take out my camera and have fun.
How did you go from that to the end-of-life side of photography?
I found that accidentally. I wasn't drawn to it because death definitely scared me. I wanted to avoid it. It's not something I wanted to move toward, I want to run away from it.
One of my dog-walking clients was a lovely six-year-old golden retriever called Buddy. He was just the sweetest, sweetest guy. And he had lymphoma and wasn't supposed to live very long, even before I met him.
But every time he went for a walk, he showed no signs of being sick. His tail never stopped wagging.
I didn't have any formal end-of-life photography of him planned, but I just wanted to do something nice for his owners. And so I took my camera with me and took some photos of him, and they really appreciated that. And I think it was just the turning point.
Any of us who have lived through our pet's death know it is awful and sad. How do you navigate that with end-of-life pet photography? What are the sessions like?
I am always surprised because I go into it bracing myself to be really sad and emotionally preparing myself. And most of the time, it's better than I expected it to be. And I think that's just because dogs are so joyful. They don't show the pain, or they try not to. The sessions are usually just a really happy time for the dog. They're surrounded by their favourite humans. And they're showered in love, attention, and other favourite treats, and they're just having a great day. And that journey comes through.
What has this work taught you about animals and the relationship of dogs to their humans?
I think when people have reached the point of acceptance when they know their dog is going to die, then that bond is so much stronger to them. They've always loved their dogs, but we live in a state of denial, feeling they're going to live forever because they're happy and healthy. Then, all of a sudden, there's this point where you realize that they're not going to be around. You see these owners with their pets and that love, and that bond is just, it's just so much highlighted at that moment.
What do folks tell you about what end-of-life photos mean to them?
People are immensely grateful. They don't have their pet anymore, but they have these photos, and it's something to hold on to.
Can you talk a bit about The Tilly Project website that you're part of?
Basically, they're trying to connect people facing the loss of their pet with photographers in their local area. So it's a directory of end-of-life photographers from all around the world. And you can put in your local area and see what photographers pop up around there.
It is interesting because if you look back to when many of us were kids, there aren't a lot of photos of our pets. It is like pets weren't worth the film, right? Culture has changed a lot.
Even when I went into professional photography, it was film cameras. And there was a fear of wasting film. And that's not a waste. You know, animals are not a waste of film. And yet, it was sort of the attitude of the time, right? You know, you photograph people, but pets weren't worth it. That makes me so sad.
What else would you like folks to know about your end-of-life photography?
I guess I would want people not to wait until the end of life because you never know if you'll get a chance. I think many people think, "Oh, it's such a nice idea for when it comes to that time." But you don't always get that chance. It is sad to realize that that's just a reality. Every-end of-life situation is so different, and sometimes it's long and drawn out. Sometimes it's sudden, and you never know how it will be, so just don't wait till it's too late.
Speaking of pet photography in general, there is a saying in the film industry that it is hard to work with kids and pets; how do you navigate working with different animals' temperaments?
I draw a lot on my photojournalism and documentary photography background because, in that style of photography, it's not like portrait photography, where you're getting somebody to pose for you. I rarely get an animal posing. I do a lot of candid work. I watch the scene, anticipate where the dog will move next, and position myself in the right place. I am just ready to shoot at any moment, and you get that split second of the dog looking at the camera. When you look at my photography, it looks like the dog is sitting there still, posing, but it is just like that for a split second, and that's when I capture the moment, and that's what the owner can't do for themselves.
I have a lot of tricks that come from when I was a dog walker and a pet sitter. I've worked with dogs with all kinds of personalities — anxious dogs, reactive dogs— I just know dogs, and I know how to respond to each one. With anxious dogs, you come in with a calm presence. If they're super anxious, you don't look at them, you engage with the owner, and the dog will watch you to see if you are a good person to trust. You don't rush them. You give them time to get used to you, to get comfortable with you. You make it a fun experience for them. Even if they're an anxious dog, there are things that they love to do.
What do you love about this work?
It brings out a different way of seeing that allows me to be more present.
When I was growing up, I never took the camera with me because my impression then was that you had to step out of the moment to document it. And then you weren't present.
But then, actually, after I went to photography school, I found that it can be the opposite experience. So if I'm walking down the street without my camera, I probably am not paying attention to pretty much anything around me. But as soon as I have my camera in my hand, then I'm looking at everything; I'm looking at the light and looking at the line for details. I'm seeing in a much more poignant way than I would have been without the camera. And that was an experience that I had missed in life beforehand.
You might be outside the moment in some ways, but you're in it in other ways. And I'm an introvert anyway. So, I kind of feel like I'm always on the outside of the centre of attention, so it suits me that way.
Journalists and photographers are usually introverts, it seems! On another note, I have to ask you about the chicken calendar that I know you made. Tell us about that and how it came about.
I'd been doing adoption photos for the local horse rescue, Riggs and River Ranch. I was going to be photographing horses. But then she got a whole batch of new chickens, and I got silly on these chickens. I was having the best time as these chickens are so cool. So I decided to photograph the chickens because they are both goofy and glamorous at the same time.
They just made me smile. So we turned the chicken calendars into a fundraiser for the horse rescue.
You have such a unique perspective on how society treats animals. Can you speak to that?
That is a hard one. People photograph their dogs and cats, and that's becoming a new thing, doing pet photography. But I'm just as happy to photograph cows, sheep, and farm animals.
I don't weigh them differently. I was visiting my friends who have a big sheep farm in the Falkland Islands, and I was having so much fun photographing the sheep and the cows. Just the same as if I were photographing a dog or a cat, you know? Society ranks them for some reason. One is food, and one is companionship. And I don't understand that, to be honest. I just don't make that distinction. And it's just so sad that society does.
Find out more about Holden's work on her site, Paw Prints Pet Photography