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Social media expands options for rural photographer
Living in rural northwest Wisconsin can be an exciting adventure. But, as many self-employed business owners will tell you, making a living can be an on-going adventure they’d prefer to avoid.
Then there’s Hannah Stonehouse Hudson. The nationally recognized shooter who photographs dogs around the country while living in Bayfield. Being a nationally recognized pet photographer didn’t happen overnight or without being a creative business person.
In 2005, Hudson was an insurance agent by day but looking for something to occupy her time in the evenings while her husband Jim worked. She chose photography – in part because it was a long-time passion.
“When I was growing up, we moved around a lot. When I was 12-years old, my parents gave me a Canon AE-1 to use while I explored the different places we live,” Hudson explains.
She still has that camera and occasionally uses it on photo shoots. But, being an insurance agent is a distant memory.
“In 2009, I was working 70-80 hours per week, so I had to choose one or the other. I chose photography.”
Hudson made that decision when she had a wedding to shoot in Tettegouche State Park in Northeastern Minnesota on a Tuesday in February. Covering weddings mid-week was difficult, but rather than be frustrated, she turned it into a positive.
“I took it a sign that it was time for me to quit being an insurance agent,” she says, never looking back.
For several years, Hudson focused on wedding photography. But, to make a year-round living, she needed to be creative about attracting customers beyond Bayfield — another challenge she readily accepted by maximizing her presence online.
“I always tell people I’m a business person first. I have always enjoyed the challenge of finding and bringing potential clients to my website,” Hudson explains.
To achieve this, she spent a lot of time focusing on SEO and analytics to see what people were searching for when looking for a wedding photographer. She then used that information to formulate the content and keywords used on her website. As social media began building momentum, she also invested in making sure she was utilizing this sales tool to the max. Today, she estimates that about 75 percent of her business comes from a combination of these tools, with the rest primarily being word of mouth.
After building a solid reputation as a well-respected and accomplished wedding photographer, Hudson found herself burned out on weddings. She wanted a new challenge that took her passion for photography and partnered it with another passion – dogs.
“I told my husband one night, I only want to take photos of dogs for the rest of my life,” she says. “He thought I was crazy but supported my idea.”
Soon after, life got interesting for Hudson after posting a photo on Facebook. It was the John and Schoep photo, which featured John Unger and his 19-year-old dog Schoep on Lake Superior.
At the time, she didn’t think much of it. It was just another photo capturing the love between a pet and its owner. Little did she know the photo would go on to be shared more than 214,000 times on social media. Animal lovers donated more than $25,000, which led to the creation of a fund to help animals from low-income families. The picture had its own Facebook page. Dozens of regional and national news organizations interviewed Hudson about her love for dogs.
“This photo set off a crazy stream of events that were life changing,” she explains. It also provided the platform to transition to pet photographer much quicker. “I think it still would have happened, but not this quickly.”
Another life event expedited the transition as well. In 2012, Hudson’s husband died in a tragic ice fishing accident on Lake Superior. Often times, she found herself seeking comfort in their dogs and being reminded of how every second counts – so make it matter. It also sealed the deal in terms of Hudson committing to doing exactly what she loves, everyday.
Today, the John and Schoep photo is often a conversation starter about her love for photographing dogs. The photo is also a major web traffic generator and helps her build an audience that is passionate about dogs.
This is key given she knew from the start that making a living by photographing dogs wouldn’t happen locally. There just wouldn’t be enough interest locally by people wanting professional photos of their pets. She knew she needed a larger regional reach, and she also knew she wanted to give back to the pet community. So, utilizing social media and her networks, she created an interesting business/philanthropic venture.
Each month, Hudson travels to a different city around the country. During her stay, she does professional photo shoots with various pet owners and their dogs. She splits the cost of travel among those customers to keep costs down. She then volunteers one day at an animal shelter of their choice to either photograph a hard-to-place dog or to provide photography tips for staff. She does all of this while continuing to live in Bayfield.
One of the organizations she helps out regularly is Catkins Animal Rescue. She and Catkins founder Laura Stroud once served on a humane society board together. Today, Stroud says Hudson plays a vital role in the shelter’s success.
“She is an amazing photographer who can capture the personality of our animals. When people view a pet photo she has taken, they know right away if this pet is a good fit for them. It makes for more placements, many of which are a better match than a staged photo.”
Stroud strongly believes Hudson is responsible for many of the placements at Catkins — both directly and indirectly. “She not only connects people to specific animals, but she leads and introduces people who are passionate about animals to our organization via social media.”
This connection has led to additional adoptions and donations to assist in day-to-day operations or specific medical procedures that can be life changing for the animals. Over the years, the connection has become so strong between the two that a fund has been set-up in her husband’s honor to help animals in need. It is all just part of Hudson’s commitment to giving back to those she loves.
Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box to be a small business owner in rural America. But, thanks to new tools and ways to connect with potential customers around the country, Hudson demonstrates she’s up for the challenge.
Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.
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