Since she was a child, Tara Rudy dedicated her life to one goal: becoming a police officer. She studied criminal justice, worked in security, went to the police academy, and eventually earned her badge.
But somewhere along the line, another passion sparked within her. While working security at a local mall and preparing for the police academy, Rudy gained an interest in portrait photography after befriending an employee at the mall’s Glamour Shots location. She started spending more time at the storefront and eventually started to work at Glamour Shots part time.
The photography work awakened something new and unexpected for Rudy: “It was very empowering. Once I got a taste of it, I couldn’t give it up. I just loved making people feel good.” Though she did go on to a five-year career as a police officer, Rudy found that photography continued to call to her. In 2012, when a disabling injury to her husband thrust Rudy into the role of primary breadwinner, she decided to return to photography as a full-time occupation.
“I had to decide if I was going to make a go of it or just punch a clock for someone else,” she recalls. “I chose to make a go of it. After all, photography was a lot safer and a lot more fun.”
Rudy’s career path is significant because it speaks to the defining motivation behind her business. Ultimately, her driving force is the desire to bring joy to people. That’s what prompted her career change, it’s what keeps her engaged in her work, and it’s what’s helped her studio attain an enviable status in her Oshkosh, Wisconsin, community.
“It’s not about me; it’s about the people who come through my doors,” she says. “I try to make everyone feel special. You don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life and how valuable that feeling might be to them at that moment. Every human needs to feel special, that their life means something, that they are beautiful.”
This is more than a motto for Rudy. It’s a mission statement, a fundamental expression of the why behind her photography. “Just a simple act of humanity can make someone’s day—it might even save their life,” she says. “And I mean that. People can tell that I’m not fluff, that I’m not just trying to get you through the door to get your credit card. They trust me.”
The sincerity that leads to trust is perhaps nowhere more valuable than in Rudy’s senior portrait work. Teenagers are notoriously skeptical and guarded while also starving for a compassionate listener who can offer them validation when they need it. Rudy takes on this role wholeheartedly and without reservation, offering herself emotionally and making herself vulnerable, all in the name of forming a deeper connection with another person when they need it.
“Trust is everything,” says Rudy. “You have to listen to your clients. They have to know that you’re listening. My clients know within five minutes of meeting me that I have their back.”
In Rudy’s portrait process, everything builds. For the girls, she starts with professional hair and makeup. For the boys, she does a consultation about themes and wardrobe. In both cases, she builds confidence, gradually raising them up and demonstrating her vested interest in creating something special for them.
From there, Rudy talks them through the entire process, building excitement through the session. She tells them how she’s going to work with them to make them look their best. Typically, she begins a session in her natural light bay, which is a comfortable place for seniors to get used to being photographed with some standard shots. Particularly during this phase, she’ll ask the senior to mirror her, guiding them through posing to remove the insecurity of standing in front of a camera with no idea what to do.
Once she’s established a baseline of trust, Rudy may ask her subjects to try something different. She’ll move them to various locations and start to insert more creative ideas. It may be a step out of the senior’s comfort zone, which can be difficult for this age group. However, when they see the results on the back of the camera, they get excited and are more open to new ideas for the rest of the session. “That is when the magic happens,” says Rudy. “When they see themselves in a new way, you can see the light in their eyes.”
Rudy continues to collaborate with her subjects throughout the session, showing them images and soliciting their ideas. This is where the trust needs to flow both ways. “They get excited when I’m excited,” says Rudy. “So I have to shake it up. I’m asking them to try new things, so I do the same. I have to put myself and my ideas out there and trust them to respond.”
There’s a trial-and-error element to the process, and Rudy keeps adding new ideas with as much of an emphasis on the experience as on the actual photography. “I want everyone to have fun,” she says. “No one is going to talk about a boring session.”
Establishing strong, trusting bonds with clients has helped the growth of Rudy’s business. People talk, and that’s been the cornerstone of Rudy’s business development over the years. “When you make people feel special, they will talk about you,” she says.
Beyond organic word-of-mouth marketing, Rudy bolsters her image by engaging with the local populace. “It’s so important to get out in your community, shake hands, and explain to people why you do what you do,” she says. “I want people to understand that I’m not just going out to try to make some extra money. I want to make people feel better. I want to make a difference. I want to help people experience how everyone else sees them through a picture.”
As a result, the teenagers who come to Rudy for senior portraits are excited. It isn’t an obligation they’re doing for their parents. They’ve seen their friends’ pictures, heard about Rudy’s heartfelt approach, and they show up invested and ready with their own ideas for portraits.
Rudy urges photographers to have faith in the process and trust their hearts. Think: What kind of experience do you provide, and how will you be remembered?
“Put yourself out there in every way possible—in your community, with your heart, and put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” she says. “Figure out how you can make someone’s life better. It’s not about you or what kind of camera you have or the big studio; it’s about how you make people feel. Anyone can take your picture, but people will always remember how you made them feel. When you can connect with someone, you’re going to affect their life in a way that you didn’t think was possible. And that in itself will give you the best reward ever.”
RELATED: A gallery of Tara Rudy's work
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer