For the love of Pearl

This story is for the dog people. If you aren’t a dog person, you probably won’t understand. Dog people connect with their pets on an almost cellular level. They become part of who we are. We love them, cherish them, forgive them. Even when they eat the remote. Even when they throw up on the bed.

Pearl is ten. She has done her fair share of eating the remote. She has been sprayed four times in the face with porcupine quills. She rolls in goose poop every day and then grumbles while she gets washed off. She is her owner’s constant companion. And she might have cancer.

“My brother Brent is a veterinarian. He told me these mast cell tumors sometimes go crazy when you remove them. I think he’s preparing me for her eventuality.” Rhonda, 68, lives alone with Pearl and Max, another lab mix. She goes about her day watering the plants, playing games on her iPad, texting with her brothers about an upcoming visit. The dogs are her constant shadow. She chatters with them, making jokes, singing songs, laughing at their antics. “They crack me up. I shouldn’t think they’re this funny, but I just do.”

Pearl is scheduled to have a fast growing tumor on her paw removed on Monday. Rhonda is keeping up good spirits, but always preparing for the eventuality.

Creative Process

I am not a photographer. I have so much respect for people who can take a good photo but it does not come naturally to me. The first story that I tried to tell included people but I had a very hard time getting comfortable with that. Reuters Photojournalist Damir Sagolj says that you must be invisible to take meaningful photographs.

You don’t want to be a photographer who enters someone’s private space trying to capture reality because then it’s not reality.

(Thompson Reuters Foundation, 2012)

I also tried to shoot a story about place – using the Southington Town Green and all of the beautiful monuments and old buildings that surround it as my subject. I shot about fifty photos from different angles and yet, the story did not emerge and the images felt flat and empty.

Finally, I turned back to my first great love and the only thing I ever enjoy photographing – dogs. The beauty of photographing dogs, or probably any non-human living being, is the life they exude without ever trying. They are constantly in motion and to me, always interesting.

But, the words of my professor echoed in my head… “Five random photos of your dog is not photojournalism.” So I needed a story. Not just about how darn cute my dog is, or even about how much he enjoys making news friends at the dog park. Unfortunately for me, a story presented itself.

I decided to photograph Pearl for several reasons:

  • She is a joyful being. I knew that even with my rudimentary photography skills and iPhone XR, I would be able to capture her essence.
  • Although still joyful, she is moving into the twilight of her life. Old dogs deserve a kind of reverence that we often don’t give them until it’s too late.
  • I wanted to document her joy and the love she brings to the world before time ran out. Staring down the barrel of a possible cancer diagnosis made this need feel very timely.

In the article Photo Narratives: Defining picture stories, essays and packages, Eman Shurbaji writes, “Presenting a story through photography communicates a different — often deeper — understanding of person, place, event or narrative than can be expressed through written or spoken word.”

It was my intention to tell the story of a much beloved companion who was unknowingly on the cusp of tragedy. To accomplish this, I decided to use the photo story style of photojournalism as it is “the most intimate of the…storytelling methods because it means the photographer is focusing on one character or scene, and letting viewers live through the photos.” (Shurbaji, 2014).

I followed a second rule of Damir Sagolj’s 7 Photojournalism Tips: anticipate. I shot approximately 100 photos of Pearl over the course of a morning at her home in Vermont. Because dogs are almost constantly in motion (except when they’re sleeping, and even then sometimes they’re chasing those dream squirrels) I tried to set myself out of the way, sometimes making myself invisible, and just record everything she did. That anticipation of her next move allowed me to get some really wonderful images of her goofy personality.

As I mentioned earlier, I struggle with my ability as a photographer. For this project, I tried to keep in mind the advice of Jade Lien in the article The Four Principles of Visual Storytelling. Lien says that the image that will tell the best story “isn’t always the perfectly pristine photo, but rather the nitty-gritty and beautifully flawed, majestic images. The ones you can somehow smell in the air and feel on your skin. Visuals like this invite us in for a full sensory experience.”

Is this the most photographically sound image ever captured? No. But the green grass, the squint in the dog’s eyes, the blue sky and the bounding gate all invite the viewer to experience this warm, bright summer day along with this joyful dog.

Furthermore, when looking at the image through a color theory lens, the colors captured in the image are nearly complementary – an analogous theme of yellow (beige), green and blue. Green and blue are both cool colors that represent calm, stability and nature. Beige is a color that enhances the colors around it. Using this analogous color pallet (thank you Vermont in the early summer!) I have captured an image that makes the viewer feel calm and happy – two feelings that are proven to increase when looking at a photo of a dog!

So, if my photo story did it’s job, you feel quite attached to Pearl and possibly even sad to know that she may be entering the final phase of her life. Well, I’m glad to report that the tumor was removed and the tests came back as non-cancerous. She is recuperating, enjoying the shade, rolling in turkey poop, and is very interested in trying to eat the baby chickens that have moved onto the property.


Cao, J. (2015, April 7). Web design color theory: How to create the right emotions with color in web design. TNW | Tnw.

Garcia, M. (2017, January 19). Digital storytelling, part one: The fusion of writing/editing/design. García Media.

Golbeck, J. (2020, April 30). Looking at Pictures of Dogs Improves Well-Being. Psychology Today.

Interaction Design Foundation. (2020, January 5). Putting some emotion into your design – Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. The Interaction Design Foundation.

Lien, J. (2019, November 21). The Four Principles of Visual Storytelling. Amplifi.

Shurbaji, E. (2014, December 17). Photo narratives. Medium.

Thompson Reuters Foundation. (2012). 7 photojournalism tips by Reuters photographer Damir Sagolj. In .

3 thoughts on “For the love of Pearl

  1. Rhonda Pattberg says:

    I’ve a lump in my throat🥰. I love this piece. Not only for the subject, but for the gifted writing.




  2. jholzmann says:

    Hi Jenny!
    First of all: I’m glad Pearl is okay! Your piece gave a great insight into who Pearl is and what her life is like as a senior dog. You did a great job of setting the tone, and I found myself nervous as I was reading and hoping the ending would be happy. I liked that your photos showed Pearl’s personality: an older dog who still has puppy-like tendencies. Even being faced with something like cancer, Pearl is oblivious and simply happy to be getting some peanut butter with her pills. That’s something that’s always been fascinating to me about my own dogs–they just seem happy to be included and, luckily, don’t get the gravity of the situation, no matter how serious. You did a great job of using different angles and motion shots to tell your story, and I love how you chose to lay them out. The photos feel joyful, anxious, playful, and nerve-wracking. The way you were able to convey these photos and explain them was really well done.


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