Capturing Unconventional Hero Stories with Cassie Thurrott
Photos by Nicole Constante unless otherwise stated.
Cassie Thurrott is a dog photographer based in Edmonton. Yup, her job is to take photos of dogs! Dream job right there, right?! That was my initial reaction, too. But when I read about her story and why she does what she's doing, I learnt the big purpose behind it. She adopted Cooper and the dog helped so much with Cassie's mental health. Now Cassie started a project called Heroic Tails, taking photos of others struggling with mental health and their dog companions, breaking the stigma around it. Also, her niche in photography is so specific and rare that it got my attention. Talk about following your heart and not the big market!
Love for dogs had been something we had in common. I asked her to tell me about her dog, Cooper throughout our time together to shoot for this interview and I saw just how big her heart is for Cooper. We laughed as she told me stories of how the shelter got the dog's gender wrong and even the age and I curiously inquired how the adoption process worked.
I would always gush out whenever people with their pets pass by, reminding me of my puppies from the Philippines. However, when I read Cassie's story and whilst listening to her tell me about her dog and stories of her clients, it made me realise just how deeper a relationship can be. I always saw my dogs as playmates and maybe my babies, and sure, my dog Nacho would always lick my tears whenever she would catch me crying, but Cassie's stories gave me a new perspective and a better understanding, especially for those who find their comfort and purpose from their fur friends.
A dog really is a man's bestfriend, in every sense of the word.
Heroic Tails Exhibit
May 27, 2018
1 PM - 4 PM
The Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse
Cassie will be having an exhibit specifically for this project! So proud of this girl and her hard work. I know this is only the beginning. The details are above. I'll be there and I hope to see you guys too! We could also purchase a copy of her book at the event and get some pastries for ourselves from the coffee shop as we look around and admire her work. Cassie told me about making this happen so Im excited for this event to unfold!
Why did you choose to become a photographer of dogs and their owners?
I have struggled with finding my niche in the photography business since the beginning. There are some amazing photographers out there and they have their own unique style. Throughout school I really enjoyed photographing dogs however I figured this was not something I could make a living off of.
One of my friends asked me to photograph her dog, Snoopy, before putting him down. She and Snoopy had grown up together, and he was her best friend growing up. Snoopy supported her through the roughest parts of her life. However, months before the expected date, an unfortunate injury caused Snoopy to be unable to walk; she had to put him down earlier than expected. My friend cancelled the portraits and was reluctant to rebook. Knowing how important Snoopy was, I convinced her to do them anyway. This was a perfect way to say goodbye and honour their relationship. We made a bed on the floor and their session was full of cuddles, tears, and, surprisingly, laughter.
This experience stuck with me and is why I photograph not only dogs, but of dogs with their owners. The bond and connection between them is pure and unconditional.
What’s the story behind Heroic Tails, as well as the name of the project?
I had recently decided to specialize in photographing the bond between dogs and their people. However, I didn’t know how to let people know this. Many photographers do special projects to bring out their creativity and their passion. I toyed around with different project ideas, some that I still may do, but ultimately none of them had a spark that would drive me enough to not give up on it.
Heroic Tails came to me when I was going through a real low in my depression. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, but Cooper, my dog, would force me out of bed every morning after my alarm would go off. She knew the routine and would literally talk and yell at me if I didn’t get up. This is what I wanted my project to be about. How dogs care so much for their owners and know when they are needed.
I played around with the name for a couple of months, during this time I also debated if I could even keep it going because I was still in the low of depression. Some other names were Dogs with Wings, Heroic Canines, Four Legged Angels, and others that were too horrible to remember. After talking with some friends, we thought of Heroic Tails, Tails because of dogs instead of Tales like stories. It had nice word play and could reach out to other animals. Currently, it is just about canines, but some people have brought up stories about their cats and horses, which could be something in the future.
Tell us about how having a pet, specifically a dog, helps those who suffer with mental health illness.
There are many forms of mental illness and many reasons to have a pet to relieve some of the symptoms, far too many for name off. I can only tell you how Cooper helps me.
We adopted Cooper from a local rescue organization from Edmonton, AB. I knew when rescuing a dog, they might have previous issues that would need to be worked on. This comforted me knowing I was helping someone, in this case a dog, giving my life purpose. I felt I had no purpose before her. My life then transformed to helping Cooper get better. She was very timid and scared, but because all my focus was on her it relieved my mind of the constant state of depression I was in. Even after two years she still gives me purpose. I have to come home every night to feed her, take her outside, play with her, and other dog owner responsibilities.
Besides giving me a purpose, she also helps me with my mental and emotional state. She is my protector. Every night at bedtime she lays with me until I go to sleep and wakes me up in the morning. She is also protective of me physically, if she feels I am in harm’s way. Cooper helps me to go outside more, which is something I didn’t have the energy to do before her.
What fuels your passion of bringing awareness to the stigma of personal companion dogs?
Believe it or not, Canada doesn’t officially recognize emotional support animals. The key word here is ‘officially’. Hypothetically, you can get a doctor’s note and a note from a necessary therapist (specific to your situation) and present this to your landlord, or whomever, and they should allow you to have a dog around because it is for your wellbeing and you deserve to feel comfortable in your own home. This was not the case for me.
We recently moved into a rental property with plans of getting a dog. Before signing our lease, our property manager confirmed that we were allowed to have a dog. My landlord refused to allow pets, even though on our lease it said ‘upon approval’. This was a cruel trick that they used to lure in tenants and likely would never approve any animal, even though I had the necessary paperwork. This is my fuel. Cooper is my fuel. She is not a pet; she is my personal companion and emotional support dog. She is the reason I get up in the morning and come home at night.
What does a session usually look like? Do the dogs cooperate right away or do you need treats, etc? Is it full of laughter, hugs?
A Heroic Tails session normally starts with being with the dog(s) and owner(s) at a park. It can be on or off-leash, dependent on the dog. We walk around and chat for a bit, while the dog gets comfortable with me, my gear and the surroundings while doing dog things like running, smelling grass and peeing on trees. After I get the feeling that the owner and dog are ready and comfortable with me we start taking photos. I will ask them to play with their dog; this gets any nervous energy out. From there, we walk around the park looking for unique locations and capturing the moments between the dog and their owner. I always recommend bringing special treats and favourite toys for the dog. Treats are especially good for getting them to stay longer and positive reinforcement let’s the dog know they are doing a great job. Most of the session is candid and mainly just having fun with your dog!
Mental Health is a very sensitive thing that not everyone is open about, but you seem to make your clients comfortable enough to tell their stories. How do you establish that trust and openness?
There are two things that all of my sessions have in common.
First, is honesty. I have to be honest with them, because this project is public; most people already know that their stories will be posted online. At the beginning of the session, I send out a questionnaire, they fill it out, we exchange emails, and finalize a date. Throughout the emails I always confirm that they are okay with their story becoming public.
Second, I always look for clues that indicate whether or not the client is comfortable. It is a sensitive topic and I want the client to know they can trust me and I will not abuse their emotions or words. Typically, I don’t ask many questions during the session. We chat about our lives and I always mention a bit of my story that we can relate on. Slowly, we start talking about mental health and their experience with it in their words. I believe this is really important. Hearing it in their own words, without my questions blurring what they want me to hear.
You also take photos of them out in nature. Why is that?
The answer to why I take photos in nature is very simple. Having strangers in my home makes me nervous and I am sure other people feel the same way. It is a neutral area in which the dog can be a dog, without the need to protect their home, and the owner does not need to worry if their house is clean enough or if there is enough space.
Let’s talk about photography. How did going to school help you as an artist and a business owner?
Schooling is a tough topic for me. I believe that schooling helped me grow to who I am now. I learnt many skills that I couldn’t learn on my own and I met some amazing people; however, schooling is what I believe brought out my depression. It wasn’t until I moved to a new city, got a new job, and went to a new school that my symptoms started to appear. Many things we learnt in school are blurred memories and I have a hard time recalling it. We learnt about the technical and the artistic aspects of photography. One of the classes I feel like I learnt the most was Critique, which was also the class I hated the most. We had a weekly theme and would photograph and mount our work for our teachers and guest photographers to rip apart in front of the class. You would not only learn what you did wrong, but you would learn from the mistakes of others. The other class I benefited from would be business and marketing. Marketing is a secret passion of mine, as I love designing websites and spreadsheets. These things are very important if you want to be a successful business owner.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about following your passion?
If you are passionate about something, people will see it and want to be passionate with you. I was worried at the beginning that Heroic Tails was something I would lose interest in, because no one else would be interested in it. However, the more I kept talking about it, the more people could see this is what I genuinely wanted to do and started encouraging me to go for it. You don’t know who your supporters are until you give them a reason to support you.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Take a business class, even if it is not photography based. If you are hoping to make something your livelihood, you have to know how to price and market yourself.