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Local photographer confident his business will survive despite COVID-19 burden
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Local photographer confident his business will survive despite COVID-19 burden

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COVID-19 has interrupted life around the world since the pandemic first began to spread earlier this year.

In Nebraska alone, annual events like the College World Series held in Omaha were canceled due to the pandemic. On top of that, weddings, graduations and other celebrations were put on hold to comply with guidelines surrounding COVID-19.

The pandemic also put a hold on those who dedicated their profession to capturing those special moments.

Vance Wagener has owned and operated VW Photography alongside his wife, Diane, in Fremont since 1996. It’s been a life-long hobby that ultimately turned into a profession following his 17-year career in the U.S. Navy.

Like many small businesses throughout the area, 2020 has been a difficult year for Wagener and his business. Wagener said business first dipped following flooding in the area in February.

He said things began to level out again shortly after the flooding, only for COVID-19 to make its appearance later in the spring.

Wagener serves on the board of directors for the Professional Photographers of Nebraska and is the past president for the organization. He said the impact from the virus was immediate for members across the state.

“Things started getting canceled right away, which a lot of the photographers were making their living off of,” he said.

Those events included the College World Series, the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, graduations and high-school sports.

“I mean, the College World Series, we’re talking about a third of some people’s income,” Wagener said.

Prior to the flooding and eventual pandemic that stalled business throughout the spring and summer, Wagener said business was trending upward.

He added that the same trend could be found within the professional photography field in general.

“There was a trend of people going back to professional photographers because of their lighting and posing skills, as well as the products that they were offering,” he said. “So people wanted more professional images, and then coronavirus hit and now we’re all rethinking what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it.”

Now, Wagener said some professional photographers may not recover.

“Some of them are just not going to be able to make because this is a tough business to be in,” he said.

Wagener said the most critical time for photographers looking to start a professional business comes in the first three to five years.

“If they make it beyond their fifth year, they usually have some prospect of making it in this business, but this is a tough business, no doubt,” he said.

At this point in the year, Wagener said he would have typically completed around 25 shoots for clients. He said his business is down around 40% due to the pandemic.

His services range from wedding photography to senior photos and family portraits. Wagener, who described himself as a generalized photographer, said wedding photography has been virtually nonexistent at his studio due to the pandemic.

Senior portraits and family photos are just beginning to roll in.

“People are starting to make plans and they’re starting to figure out COVID-19,” he said.

Garry Clark, president and CEO of the Greater Fremont Development Council, said small businesses with a specific clientele have felt the brunt of financial issues associated with COVID-19.

“It’s really become important that we rally around that and we support those businesses by finding a way to patronize them,” he said. “Today, COVID-19 will have some businesses that will have to close up and some that will have to shut down services, especially for small businesses. It’s important that we find funding federally, statewide and locally to maintain them and keep those doors open.”

Wagener said his job integrates social distancing out of necessity. Because most of his photography demands a longer lens, he said he’s usually at least 10 feet away from his subject at all times.

“Rarely am I ever walking up to anybody,” he said. “ ... I really don’t want to get up from my position behind the camera where I’ve got it exactly the way that I want it to look.”

While a return to life before the pandemic seems unlikely after months of quarantine, social distancing and other safety measures, Wagener is confident his 24-year business in Fremont will survive.

“I’m very hopeful that I am going to be around,” he said. “ ... There will always be a spot for professional photographs done with correct lighting and posing along with an excellent product and customer service. That’s how we’re going to beat this.”

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