Lauren Smith Kennedy is a Maine photographer specializing in end-of-life pet photography. Credit: Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Lauren Smith Kennedy’s life revolves around helping animals and making pictures.

Kennedy’s main gig is raising money and overseeing social media for Saco River Wildlife Center in Limington. Part of that job entails spending quality photographic time with orphaned raccoons, injured porcupines and the occasional wayward coyote while the critters rest up and heal at the York County rehabilitation facility.

In her spare time, Kennedy volunteers her considerable picture-making skills in service of yet another animal-related cause: She documents the final days of beloved family pets.

Lauren Smith Kennedy is a Maine photographer specializing in end-of-life pet photography. Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy Credit: Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

Kennedy’s portraits of gray-muzzled dogs and dignified-but-rickety old cats — and the humans who love them — are suffused with sublime emotion. Instead of staying on just the sentimental surface, her pictures run deep and wide. Kennedy somehow manages to capture deep love, respect, joy and inevitable sadness in her remarkable photographs.

And she offers her services for free.

We sat down with Kennedy at a Portland coffee shop this week to find out more.

Lauren Smith Kennedy is a Maine photographer specializing in end-of-life pet photography. Top left photo credit: Troy Bennett; other photos courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

Q: The last time we talked, you were setting up tiny, elaborate photo sets for your neighborhood chipmunks to walk into. How did you go from there to end-of-life pet portraits?

A: The loss of my own cat, Tilly, had a huge impact on my life. It was a traumatic and freak accident. She was the most wonderful cat you could ask for. It really impacted my mental health. I lost my passion for photography after that. Then, I had a friend whose dog was about to be put down and I just reached out to them and asked if these people would want any photos — and they said yes.

Lauren Smith Kennedy is a Maine photographer specializing in end-of-life pet photography. Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy Credit: Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

Q: And then word got out?

A: Yes. I put the photos on social media and made a TikTok and it took off from there.

Q: That video has more than a half-million views now I think.

A: I don’t know what the definition of viral is but it was very well received and it all took off from there. I was like: I completely want to do this. Since I started this spring, I’ve probably done 30 shoots.

Lauren Smith Kennedy is a Maine photographer specializing in end-of-life pet photography. Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

Q: And you really don’t charge anything for these pictures?

A: Yes. It’s free. This is not a business. I don’t believe in profiting off of people’s grief. I want this service to be accessible to all. If someone is reaching out, that means they have a deep love for their pet. I wish I could say yes to everyone. I have people offering to fly me out to California, to Nova Scotia. I have folks coming up here from New York City. I just had someone come from Pennsylvania.

Q: How do you get through these sessions? Aren’t they incredibly sad?

A: I’m not heartless. I have to go into these sessions a little disconnected. I’m always asked how I get through these without sobbing. It’s not that I don’t feel grief or sadness. It’s that I’m there to do a job, to honor the life of an animal. If I put my own emotion into it, and take up space, it wouldn’t do anything to help. I’m there for those people, to honor a life, to capture love.

A family spends a special moment with their dog in a photo by Maine photographer Lauren Smith Kennedy, who specializes in end-of-life pet photography. Credit: Courtesy of Lauren Smith Kennedy

Q: Did you get another cat?

A: I did. His name is Percy. I got him at the Greater Portland Animal Refuge League. He’s a saving grace. He’s my little best friend and helped me heal so much — so much.

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.