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Behind the Scenes of a “Girls and Their Cats” Photo Shoot

Photographer BriAnne Willis has captured over 300 “cat ladies.” Here’s how she got the shot of my feline family. (Hint: deli turkey had something to do with it.)

by Nikki Palumbo
April 18, 2022
Two woman with short dark hair, one holding a gray and white cat while the other leans against the woman holding the cat, to look at the cat
Photo: BriAnne Willis

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

If you’re a person with a cat, then odds are high you’ve heard of, seen, or been featured in Girls and Their Cats, a visual love letter to cats and cat lovers alike. It’s been on my Litter Box List (the cat equivalent of Bucket List, I don’t need to explain this to you, you’re smart) for years and I’m thrilled to announce: we got the shot.

I initially reached out to BriAnne Willis — the writer/photographer/nicest person in the world behind the viral Instagram, blog, and analog Instagram (I think these are still called “books”) — last summer to book a session. Between waiting for our cats to acclimate and being overly cautious about a winter cold, we finally made it happen last month.

To start, BriAnne made everything incredibly dummy- and cat-proof. She offers three packages: Cat Lady, Cat Fancy, and Cat Party. I opted for the all-inclusive Cat Party because it nailed all of our needs:

  • 1-2 hours at our home

  • 1-2 people

  • 1-4 cats

  • 80-100 images in an online gallery

  • 10 retouched/digital downloads (for online sharing with @girlsandtheircats credit, of course)

  • bonus solo photo of each cat

  • and a note assuring “This package is better for shy cats who need more time to adjust.”

nikki palumbo and cat
Photo: BriAnne Wills
nikki palumbo and cat
Photo: BriAnne Wills

Once booked, BriAnne — ever the professional cat paparazzo — even included a brief prep list of tips and tricks for a successful shoot:

  1. Have a lint roller handy. I haven’t lived in a lint roller-less home since 1994.

  2. Pick up some of your cat’s favorite treats. Sliced deli turkey and provolone.

  3. Make sure your home is tidy! (If you don’t want something in the photos, make sure it’s hidden/put away!) We spot-cleaned everything and everywhere in the apartment except the office, where of course one of the cats considers her queendom.

  4. If possible, block access to their hiding spots so you can easily pick them up. (Only do this if you think it won’t cause more stress to the cats.) I forgot to do this and paid the low low price of “Having to lift the bed and breaking a sweat.”

sam reece and cat
Photo: BriAnne Wills

Let’s set the scene: My five-year-old Snowshoe cat, Fonzie, hides on even his bravest days. I think I accidentally made him my anxiety-Horcrux. So, there’s never been a stranger in my apartment that Fonzie hasn’t dove under the bed to get away from. Enter BriAnne, a stranger. We didn’t see Fonzie for the first hour. For Fonzie to have fully adjusted, we’d need to purchase the Cat Shotgun Wedding package where BriAnne just has to become a part of our family and slowly earn his trust.

But it actually worked out fine because while Fonzie dealt with his stage fright under the aforementioned very heavy bed, my partner’s five-year-old landlord tabby (breed pending) cat, Emma Stone the Cat, took center stage because she was born into the Hollywood elite. Also she’s never felt fear in her life, except when she’s “starving to death” in between meals or any time Fonzie is anywhere near her.

sam reece and cat
Photo: BriAnne Wills
nikki palumbo and cat
Photo: BriAnne Wills

Honestly, I thought I had this piece pre-written: Emma would steal the show and BriAnne would have to take my word that Fonzie lived in the apartment at all. Yet, BriAnne is somehow both a cat whisperer and a cat cheerleader. Oh, and also so cool? She showed up dressed head-to-toe in the chicest black with her photography equipment (camera), Mary Poppins-level bag of tricks (feather-and-bell toy), and complimentary human treats (a GATC tote and a copy of her book).

The shoot lasted for a little over an hour during which BriAnne struck a wonderful balance of letting the cats set the pace and tone and also invoking her director’s eye. “Let’s see if we can get Emma on the couch.” We could — easily, because I had a cardigan pocket full of turkey. It was also BriAnne’s visual genius that led to “Sometimes you just have to hold them for the photos.” So I scooped Fonzie out of his bunker and held him while his heart tried to escape his body. A perfect collaboration.

Maybe the most magical bonus: BriAnne edited Sam’s phone right out of her overalls.

nikki palumbo sam reece and cats
Photo: BriAnne Wills

The “hardest” part of the whole process was writing a 1,000-word profile that somehow captured all four of our personalities. Some of my favorite lines that only made the director’s cut:

  • SAM: Until literally three months ago Emma would wake me up between the amazing hours of 4AM and 6AM by either loosely pawing at my face (claws out) or knocking everything off my nightstand. Nikki brilliantly suggested setting up a timed feeder for the morning and…she leaves us alone 90% of the time. Timed feeder is my guardian angel.

  • NIKKI: Fonzie’s fully nocturnal but we’re slowly breaking him. He’s so calm and gentle 99% of the time, except when he gets the midnight zoomies where the curtains become his mortal enemy. Or at 5AM when he’s bored and does the tiniest screams as he walks room to room (only three) looking for a buddy.

We’re moving to LA in May and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to capture this version of our home and habitat. I love having this interspecies family photo album. You can literally order prints directly from BriAnne’s site so I can’t wait to assume my role as Dad, flipping open his wallet to show you his “girls” while you try to ignore me in line at the grocery store.

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nikki palumbo

Nikki Palumbo

Nikki is a writer and comedian. Her writing has appeared on The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Funny or Die, Reductress, the Google Assistant, and her folks’ fridge. She was named one of WhoHaha’s “35 LGBTQ Creators We Love” in 2018 and a Yes, And Laughter Lab finalist in 2019. She worked as a story producer on the YouTube Originals weekly music show, RELEASED, and wrote for the inaugural 2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards: Unscripted, hosted by Nikki Glaser. Nikki hosts the monthly-ish standup show Queer Tiger Beat, which has been recommended by The New York Times and featured in Time Out.