Photographer behind viral police dog pic: 'I was teary-eyed'

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By Allison Yarrow

For Jonathan Palmer, photographing the funeral of a fallen police officer was just another day at the office.

That is, until the touching image he captured, of K-9 dog Figo mourning his slain master, went viral, prompting thousands of responses and calls from national media outlets like MSN, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post.

Bardstown, KY officer Jason Ellis, 33-year old, was shot and killed on Saturday, May 25 after stopping his car to address debris in the road. “In the newspaper business, you cover the best part of life and worst part of life,” Palmer, a 34-year-old freelance photojournalist, told TODAY of his assignment to attend Ellis's funeral.

Neither Palmer, a Louisville, Kentucky native, nor the Lexington Herald-Leader's photo editor, who sent him to cover the funeral, knew the image of the dog putting his paw on the casket would go viral. It was only when the photo was posted to Reddit that it flew across the Internet, and inspired the newspaper to run the photo in its pages.

Before Palmer captured loyal Figo (pronounced Fee-go), the photographer waited six hours at the High View cemetery in Chaplin, KY, where he says the funeral procession of some 800 cars was unlike anything he’d seen before. Palmer agreed not to photograph Ellis’s mourning family out of respect, but crept through a tobacco field adjacent to the burial site to get in a good position to catch other aspects of the service.

Palmer saw 50 dogs lining a path as a horse drawn carriage brought Ellis’s casket to its final resting place, but one dog stood apart. Ellis’s name then blared over a loudspeaker multiple times before an officer said, "He’s been called home.”

“I was teary-eyed. I couldn't see through a clear lens at that point,” Palmer says.

Earlier: Police dog bids touching farewell to fallen human partner

He captured compelling images of officers approaching their slain colleague, sending one of an officer kissing the top of the casket to his editor. But it was the photo of Figo the dog that would speak to the world.

“It seemed like the dog was aware of what was going on,” Palmer remembers. “His mannerisms, his posture. He went to the casket and put his paw on it. It was like he was inspecting it.”

Though his now-iconic photo was even partially blocked by a pole, he said the “moment outweighed the technical deficiency.”

“I composed the best shot I could with the elements working against me,” he says.

While Palmer knows that many who see the photo want to believe Figo the dog pawed the casket knowing his fallen partner was inside, the photographer thinks the image resonates for a different, more instinctive reason. He thinks seeing a photo of a dog in a space reserved for human grief helps us confront the universal fear of death.

“There’s something there with animals and humans that we can’t put our finger on,” Palmer says. “Maybe seeing the dog is a reminder of the love and care you have for your loved ones and manifests itself in a tender moment with a dog.”

Palmer hopes to give back with the most widely-seen photo he has ever shot, and plans to donate the licensing fees he’ll collect from news outlets that want to use his image to a local animal welfare charity. He estimates that will come to about $1000 dollars.

While Palmer is not a pet owner, he hopes the photo will help aid the grieving process of Ellis’s friends and family, and cheers the online journalism that made it possible to reach so many with his image.