use your camera, find your heart.

today i came across an amazing video where a man has chosen to photograph an image of himself everyday for the last 13 years. at first thought i couldn’t help but think, “how incredibly narcissistic”, but after i began watching i pushed all judgments aside and was humbled by the beauty of an individual’s life and how the camera can be an amazing tool to tell our stories.
here is the link to the video, i’d encourage you to watch it:
Jeff Harris Self-Portraits: Photographer Takes An Image A Day For 13 Years And Counting

and after watching the video i was reminded of this…

(please click on the image a couple of times to see it larger)

this was years ago, and since then i can say i have photographed many emotional themes and personal projects. but this was the first and only time that i was crying as i was composing the final image, hit with the impact of the gravity of this documentation.
Belle, our cute little cuddly and feisty wiener dog. champion of house and hearts. the child of ours before our human children. she was with us only a brief period of 2 years or so, and this is the story of how she went the way of the earth…
i was in my final classes of college and was taking a color photography class. the assignment was to photograph color film in five different lighting atmospheres, to be able to see the way colors are effected by light. i was a bet frustrated with the assignment, i didn’t want to just document for technical sake, i wanted to take the assignment to a depth and have a purpose. like all of my work i wanted consistency and conclusion…not just assignment work to fill my notebook pages. i was trying to get a model to help me photograph them in different lighting, and come to think of it, i was thinking of doing the death portraits for this assignment way back then. the less help i received the more depressed and frustrated i was at the coming due assignment. my wife came home to find me sitting with a light meter in hand, fully clothed, and wearing a bathrobe around me (explain that to your spouse). needless to say i was in a frustrated funk. and without any help of any models i grabbed my dumb wiener dog as a last resort model and set to begin the assignment.
the first image you see is the first image i took. the setting is at dusk, Belle is sniffing the ground and is partially blurry due to the long exposure and her movement.
that evening, as always, my wife and i and our cute little wiener dog found ourselves asleep in bed. for whatever reason in the middle of the night, i needed to shift the position of our slumbering loaf-of-hot-bread-dog and so i slid her down the mattress, pushing her more to my feet so she wasn’t against my back any longer. it was at that moment that she yelped. odd. i didn’t push aggressively or anything. i thought nothing of it until the next day when i saw she wasn’t moving much. she could barely walk. something was wrong. she was barely able to climb the stairs to go potty but did so with much hesitation. we knew something was seriously wrong but we wanted to wait to see if there were any changes before we took her to a Vet. so with the weekend ahead of me, and a solid day to shoot for the assignment, i delicately picked up my dog and drove off to do a morning light shoot. (second photo, not moving dog.) a couple of hours later it was noon day and so again i photographed her…not moving (third photo) and then towards the close of the day it became heavily overcast and i decided to photograph her once again (fourth photograph).
by this time my heart was panged at how sad and pathetic the site and model was. i felt selfish for taking her out in this condition (look at her ears, that says enough) and yet i felt it was also important to document. i had no idea what was wrong with her. one day she is walking and another she is not. to a point where we were squeezing her bladder to express her urine. not good.
so late at night, we decided to run her to the vet. we learned there that it was a condition of the spine fusing together in a couple of places, a condition quite common with the breed due to their long spine. she would be forever paralyzed. she could run around life with one of those silly doggy wheels contraptions, but we would always have to help go to the bathroom (manually) and we knew it wasn’t any quality of life for us to force her to cling to. sadly, and with much tears over a silly dumb and cute wiener dog, we decided to put her down. those that have witnessed the spirit leave an animal know how heavy of a moment it is when the needle pulls the last breath from your loving pet and beloved friend. we drove home with tear streaked faces, completely shocked at the sudden turn of events. it was late at night, and we had her remains with us wrapped in a blanket. i lifted down the tail gate to our truck in the garage and set her on there for a cold night while we returned to our warm bed.
the next morning i awoke to a snow/rain. i also awoke to the remembrance that i needed to bury our dog. with head and heart heavy, i began getting things ready for the task at hand. it occurred to me that the photo assignment i had just been involved in the days previous was left incomplete. my working model’s life had seriously been interrupted. the assignment was to photograph five different natural light scenes…and i had photographed four of them, all of them using my dog as the consistent element in them. and here i was now with a dead dog. it was in these morning and mourning shuffles that i realized this was the closing natural light (weather) and to completing my assignment as well as documenting the last days of my dog’s life.
i set the shovel aside, grabbed the light meter and camera, and picked up my cold stiff dog that was wrapped in a blanket. i laid her on the dirt road by my house, seeing the scene as a perfect closing piece. a scene of a road, a homeward journey, a life of progression and eternity, and all was washed with the cleansing tears of love and gratitude for her brief but beautiful time with us.
it was the only time i have cried while looking through the lens.

the assignment was to photograph color as it is effected by natural light. and it became a documentation of the last days of our beloved Belle.

“i saw death today. a life that was once vibrant with color has all but faded to brown. and when she left, tears had soaked the earth and washed away the pain.”