In February, Emma Bailey, who lives in Annapolis, went to Quiet Waters Park to photograph a family and their 12-year-old Australian shepherd who was seriously ill after being diagnosed with a “rare and aggressive cancer,” she said.
“It felt really important to do,” recalled Bailey, 25, who had put down her own dog the day before. “It was kind of therapeutic, in a way.”
The photo session was coordinated through the Tilly Project, founded in 2021 by Lauren Kennedy to match pet owners across the globe with photographers willing to document their furry friends’ final days, sometimes free of charge, via the website’s searchable “Find a Photographer” feature. Kennedy, who lives in Maine, named the endeavor after one of her own pets — an orange cat she adopted as a kitten — that died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Now, in Anne Arundel County, there are a handful of professional and amateur photographers carrying out the Tilly Project’s mission to preemptively aid in the grief process.
The initiative struck a chord with Bailey, when she stumbled upon the concept on Pinterest.
“It’s not something that I ever would have thought of myself,” she said.
Bailey was gifted her first camera as a teenager and now runs two businesses: Emma Matheu Photography, for nature-oriented fine art photos, and Pretty Poppy Pet Photography, to photograph people’s pets and those up for adoption at animal shelters.
Alba Butler, a Glen Burnie-based photographer who grew up in Spain, first learned of the Tilly Project last year. Through her eponymous business venture, Alba Maria Photography, she had already begun offering free “rainbow bridge” photo sessions for pets nearing the ends of their lives.
“I want a calm environment for them, a relaxing session,” Butler, 27, said. It’s her goal to “capture their little expressions or their quirks.”
She’s conducted a handful of sessions through the Tilly Project since signing up last year and sees each as a way to give back to people in her community. When it comes to clients’ emotions, “nobody’s really holding it in,” she said.
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Sessions can also be lighthearted and “outgoing,” according to Jonathan Bruce, who began trying his hand at photography in the fall of 2021 and shares his work via the Instagram account @thebrokenlenz. Bruce, who lives in Annapolis and grew up in Edgewater, has used photography as a creative outlet — and as a way to enhance his “passion of hanging out with dogs,” he said.
“Every dog has a different personality,” Bruce, 30, said.
Since his first Tilly Project session in August of last year, he’s photographed six more families and counting, only charging for the time it takes to edit their photos. He’s willing to travel to Baltimore, D.C., and parts of Virginia to offer his skills to pet owners.
“They are getting a memory,” he said.
The idea of a photo shoot so close to a pet’s death might feel intimidating — but it’s an opportunity that photographers say pet owners shouldn’t let pass them by.
“Even if you’re crying in these pictures,” Bailey said, “I know you are going to want them.”
Find a photographer: thetillyproject.org/find-a-photographer