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Bittersweet Snaps

Bittersweet Snaps

  • Photos by Brianna Thoenen Photography
  • "Bittersweet Snaps" originally appeared in the June 2024 "Animals" issue of COMO Magazine. This web version includes additional content.
Rainbow Sessions with Brianna Thoenen

Photographer Brianna Thoenen offers free ‘rainbow sessions’ to provide comfort to pet owners.

It was a great day to be Bear. The sun was shining and her pack — owners Jessica and Charles Bruce; their 18-year-old son, Donovan; and their other dog, Moose — were right there with her, romping and running. It had been a while since Bear was able to romp and run. 

Jessica Bruce remembers the day as bittersweet. Bear, a 12-year-old black Labrador, had been diagnosed with histiocytic sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, weeks earlier. The prognosis was grim. The veterinarian estimated Bear had about two months to live. 

Brianna Thoenen also was there that day, snapping pictures as the family enjoyed their afternoon. As a portrait photographer, Thoenen’s bread and butter is senior pictures for graduating high school and college students, but she also does pet photography and offers what’s called rainbow sessions — so called because animals often are said to “cross the rainbow bridge” when they die — to people whose furry family members are nearing the ends of their lives. 

Looking at her portfolio, you get a sense for Thoenen’s ability to connect with her subject — regardless of whether it’s human or animal. 

“That’s my biggest perspective with photography,” Thoenen says. “It’s about empathy. When you look at a picture, a story’s being told. That’s how I go into every session.” 

Brianna Thoenen and her dog, Amun-Ra, photographed by Henley Thoenen, age 8.
Brianna Thoenen and her dog, Amun-Ra, photographed by Henley Thoenen, age 8.

Having lost beloved dogs herself — two Cocker Spaniels named Sage and Ebony — she understands the enormity of the grief that can follow. And that’s what inspired Thoenen to find a way to offer solace to others. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the loss of a pet is a significant event. In a qualitative review of nineteen papers produced from seventeen studies, Australian researchers found that pet owners who have experienced the death of a companion animal may feel the same levels of bereavement as someone mourning a person. 

Thoenen doesn’t charge for rainbow sessions, and she does her best to be available even when situations take a sudden turn for the worst. Thoenen says it’s not unusual for her to meet clients at their veterinarian’s clinic to document the final moments before an emergency euthanasia. 

Even in these heartbreaking moments, Thoenen believes there’s an opportunity to offer comfort. She hopes that by documenting small details — a grizzled beard, worn-down paw pads — she can help others work through their sorrow. 

But other times, there’s space to plan for joy. 

“Recently I got to go along for a ‘last best day’ field trip,” Thoenen said. “It was pretty cool. We cried a whole bunch, I’m not going to lie, but we got to go to Starbucks to get pup cups and McDonald’s and got a hamburger and French fries. We went to their favorite spot at the park and people watched. It was a good day.” 

Bear’s rainbow session was one of these field trips. Jessica Bruce, who owns the nail salon Manic Cure, says she first heard about Thoenen’s services from a client. Bruce reached out right away and told Thoenen about Bear’s diagnosis, but she was initially hesitant to commit anything to the calendar. 

“I really was dragging my feet on scheduling the sessions,” Bruce says. “I think part of me felt that if I didn’t schedule it, she couldn’t die. But finally I was like, ‘We’ve got to do this before things get too bad.’” 

Thoenen understands these can be emotionally fraught times for pet owners, but previous experience working as a nursing technician at Stewart Cancer Center at Boone Hospital has shown her that there can be moments of exuberance even in darkness. 

“I witnessed two weddings while I was there,” Thoenen says. “That’s a whole different world, but I feel like that’s where stories matter.” 

And because of these photos, the Bruces have a story they can look back on and feel good about. 

“We had the most beautiful day at Stephens Lake Park,” Bruce says. “I commented to Charles that it felt weird being so happy while doing something that had such sad undertones.” 

Bear died exactly two weeks after the photo session. Thoenen heard about it from a mutual friend and immediately sent Bruce an email with the link to a gallery of edited photos along with a note saying to take her time and look when she’s ready. 

“Grief is weird, but it was so heartwarming to have those photos right away,” Bruce says. “She made the experience such a positive one. She was the perfect person to do that for us.” 

And that’s the best outcome Thoenen can hope for. 

“If there’s any kind of solace in those pictures, then I feel good,” Thoenen said. “Sometimes a client will reach out on their pet’s birthday or the anniversary of their passing and say the photos mean something. That means so much to me.” 

Portrait of Brianna Thoenen with her camera taken by Henley Thoenen, age 8.
Portrait of Brianna Thoenen with her camera taken by Henley Thoenen, age 8.

The CoMo Dog Photog 

Inspired by the popular Instagram account The Dogist, Thoenen has started photographing dogs she meets by chance and documenting these encounters on her new account, The CoMo Dog Photog

She’s also working with Columbia Second Chance and Mareck Center for Dance to create a calendar featuring Second Chance alumni — that is, pets that have been adopted — posing with dancers from Mareck’s Danceability program, which gives children and adults with different abilities an opportunity for expressive movement.  

Second Chance Executive Director Giulia Hall says Thoenen is the perfect creative to bring to life this project, which is a joint fundraiser for Second Chance and Danceability.   

“Brianna has volunteered for us before and is just awesome to work with, does great work, and is just overall a great human,” Hall says. “She felt like a natural fit!”  

The calendars will be available at Second Chance, Mareck Dance, and online in November.   

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