Vancouver's expert cat photographers take high-stakes kitten pics

If you don't like kitten photos, then this is not the story for you. Meet three photographers who help orphaned cats find homes.

Kitten photo by Tanja Aelbrecht
Just the right kitten photo, by Tanja Aelbrecht.

Anybody can take a cute cat photo and share it online, and thank heavens for that. However, when a cat’s future depends upon the perfect pic, you call a professional. Let’s meet three people whose photos help cats find forever-homes. Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue (VOKRA) is in the business of helping abandoned cats and kittens find forever-homes.

Alannah Hall, chair of the VOKRA board, says that the organization wanted to build a sort of cat-photo SWAT team, particularly when it came to more difficult subjects: “We found that not all fosters can photograph black cats.” This is because it’s tough to convey the personality of a jet-black animal. Hall adds,  ”We knew there were people out there that were great photographers and so we wanted to keep track of them and spread the work around instead of always going to the usual shortlist of photographers.”

Stop thinking SPCA and start thinking Tinder: This is about making you want to meet that cat in person. Not every cat's foster parent is up to the task, for one reason or another.

With this in mind, the VOKRA team draws from deep experience to deliver the goods. VOKRA doesn’t operate a shelter –– instead, it relies upon a network of over 350 foster homes to look after its cats until each can find its forever-home. This means that the logistics of cat photography favour a team-based approach. Currently the group has twenty members, at various levels of activity.

Crossing paths

“The purring of a cat must have some magical healing powers,” says Tanja Aelbrecht. She is a professional wedding photographer, running a Vancouver-based business with her husband Jelger. Aelbrecht didn’t find VOKRA –– VOKRA found her: “Shirley, a lady that volunteers for VOKRA, helped me rescue my cat that escaped the day before I left on a vacation. She trapped the cat with hours of patience, while I wasn’t even in the country! I asked her if I could do anything to help VOKRA and she mentioned photographing a cat. And that’s how I started.”
Mama & baby cats: Photo by Tanja Aelbrecht

Aelbrecht particularly likes the social aspect of her volunteer work: “It’s fun to meet the fosters and I find that all volunteers I’ve met so far are just amazing people.”

Tanja Aelbrecht: Photo by Jelger Vitt

That's the plan, says Hall: "We wanted to build community among our photographers to share tips and tricks and awesome images."

Of course, the cat-photo game ain’t always easy. Aelbrecht recalls a particularly tough assignment: “Jeje had a mental problem, because she got scared of the movements of her own tail. It was very sad, because she panicked a lot and on top of that, the apartment was fairly dark, but I didn’t want to use a flash.”

The Cat photo guru

Tania Hennessy encountered VOKRA when she moved to Vancouver to New Zealand. Having had to leave her own cat in the Southern Hemisphere, Hennessy visited VOKRA and left with a mama cat and six kittens. "My mood immediately brightened," says Hennessy, "and when it came time for them to go up for adoption, I decided to turn my camera on my fluffy charges. This resulted in two things: it helped them get adopted more quickly and I learned that I love the challenge of working with cats!”

Hennessy has now been photographing VOKRA’s tiny clients for six years. She is the Annie Leibowitz of Vancouver cat photography, trusted with nailing the cover of the 2015 VOKRA calendar.

Sadler: Photo by Tania Hennessy

“It gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies when I hear that a cat or kitten found its forever home because of a photo I took,” says Hennessy. A jewelry designer by trade, she is used to photographing human models wearing her products –– working with orphaned quadrupeds forced her out of her comfort zone. Besides that, Hennessy ended up with a different outlook on pet ownership. “Working with the rescue, I see up close how some people view their pets as disposable and it breaks my heart," She says. "I’m passionate about helping these cats –– most often abandoned for no good reason –– find homes where they will be cherished family members for their rest of their lives.”

Tania Hennessy: Self-portrait

Now Hennessy uses her in-home studio to photograph cats who are already situated.

Going feral

The third photographer is... me. When not sitting through City Council meetings or recapping Game of Thrones, I travel around the world photographing street cats. Yes, seriously.

Through the course of my work, I crossed path with VOKRA to meet some of Vancouver’s own ferals, who live in well-hidden colonies throughout the city. I was asked if I wanted to photograph some kittens who needed homes, and found myself unable to say no.

My first assignment was so far the toughest: I had to photograph The Wobblers, three tiny kittens with a neurological disorder that left them mostly unable to control their limbs. They basically act like they’re drunk, and were very tough to capture.

The Wobblers were fast and unpredictable, playing in a tight space with very little light. Look at what I had to work with. Just look.

As I walked out of the foster's apartment, I looked forward to to the editing process, in which I'd comb through hundreds of kitten photos in search of just the right one. This is the life of a kitten photographer.

Wobbler in repose: Photo by Jordan Yerman

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