My pandemic business story: ‘You’ve got to have a senior portrait ... the heck with COVID. It’s your story’

Hayward and Shannon Gaude
Hayward and Shannon Gaude (Photo provided by Shannon Gaude)

It all started with some simple cards.

The coronavirus pandemic had forced businesses across the United States to close their doors, and Shannon and Hayward Gaude weren’t sure what to do. They wanted to remain visible and present. And the couple, the owners of Hayward Gaude Fine Portraits, missed their clients. They thought it felt right to check in.

So they started sending out cards to people they’d worked with in the past.

The message wasn’t even a sales-y one, and it didn’t include an offer or a pitch. The idea was just to connect. Hear from people. The Gaudes were asking to be nice, but they also genuinely wanted to know.

The theme, if you could call it that, was just “hugs” and a warm message.

“We didn’t want to talk about photography, because we were all in shock,” the couple said in a Zoom call this week. “We didn’t know what to say other than, ‘Hey, how are you?’ With some clients … (even now), we’re texting. ‘How y’all doing?’ Or ‘What’s up in your world?’”

“Sometimes, I get a short text back. Sometimes, it’s paragraphs,” Shannon Gaude said. “But we’re checking in with people. I just want them to know I’m here. That’s what our business was built on.”

All ears

As the pandemic continued to unfold, month by month, chapter by chapter, the Gaudes kept their ears open, so to speak. They genuinely wanted to listen to their clients, old and new, and hear what they were experiencing.

“First, we started hearing about the seniors from (the class of) 2020. They were getting run over. The things that make a senior year just weren’t happening,” the couple said. “We were like, we can help!”

So the Gaudes started offering complimentary senior portrait sessions through June.

The studio (Photo provided by Shannon Gaude)

They were astounded by the stories they were hearing, about what some of these teenagers were going through. The mental and emotional toll felt heavy, especially hearing from the seniors' parents, who were dealing with some of their own losses surrounding senior year. There would be no prom. No final sports seasons. Some families hadn’t even finalized their senior portraits, and they were scrambling to figure out what they’d do.

Shannon and Hayward Gaude were ready, saying things like, “We can shoot them outside! We’ll just stay a distance away.”

They evolved to keep up with people’s needs.

“You’ve got to have a senior portrait of some kind,” Hayward Gaude said. “The heck with COVID. It’s your story.”

The couple started that project in May, and felt honored they were able to give back to the community.

“Everyone’s gratitude was off the charts,” the Gaudes said. “It was so humbling -- wonderful to show the stories and help people. That’s how we could help, by donating some service. We don’t have cash to give to causes, but we can help with this.”

From the students to the educators

Around the same time the Gaudes started considering the high school seniors, their minds went to the teachers. They have many teachers as clients, and they wanted to help these educators document this strange time in their lives, as well.

“(These teachers) were getting slammed around (too). So we thought, let’s do something for them," Hayward Gaude said. "We had more than 250 teachers apply for sessions.” Read more.

The couple had no idea how much this gesture would mean to people. They kept hearing things like, “We haven’t done anything like this in years,” and that really tugged at the Gaudes' heartstrings.

The studio (Photo provided by Shannon Gaude)

When it comes to milestones, family pictures, newborn sessions, maternity keepsakes and the like, so many occasions are not getting covered visually right now, Shannon Gaude said.

“We were in tears hearing stories about what was getting missed,” the couple said.

They also learned about how often people, even in “normal,” pre-COVID times, weren’t having their lives documented. The Gaudes said they now see themselves as storytellers, rather than product producers.

Another shift

It’s been a trying time for the couple, too.

They’ve been working their tails off, as Hayward Gaude put it.

Their portrait studio is pretty high-end. They didn’t used to offer packages; everything was a la carte. Now, they’re working within people’s budgets and getting creative when it comes to prices and offerings.

They’ve also had to clean more often, and disinfect their studio in between clients. They’re wearing masks, gloves and sometimes a combination of safety items.

“Sometimes I even have a mask and a face shield,” Shannon Gaude said. “(I have to think about) how close I’m going to be. … It’s different, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This has been the hardest year I could have imagined. But it got us to see things we wouldn’t have seen, (and introduced us to people we wouldn’t have) met any other way.”

Creating a legacy

Based on all of their findings so far, and just what a surreal 2020 this has been, the couple started something called the Legacy Project.

Here’s what the project entails: “If anyone needs to tell a story, the session is on us,” Hayward Gaude said. “This (pandemic) could go into the middle of next year. We’ve had people take us up on that. A lot of the people, their babies turned 1 and they didn’t get to do a session, or people got married. … We don’t want (the price of) a session to be a barrier.”

The Gaudes run a small company -- a micro-business, as they call it -- seeing as their studio includes just the couple and one assistant who works from home. They’ve been on the northern side of San Antonio, in their current location, for 11 years.

But they’re staying afloat. So they’re elated to be able to take on something like the Legacy Project.

“We’re behind (sales) last year, but the bottom hasn’t dropped out,” Hayward Gaude said. “We’re swimming constantly, keeping it close. It depends on what happens after this. We can’t sit back and wait. We have to keep working at making things happen. We were closed for about two months (earlier this year), so you can’t make that up. If things keep getting better, we’ll be OK. We plan to stick around.”

And as the holidays draw nearer, the couple -- along with the rest of the world, presumably -- has their fingers crossed that there’s not a COVID-19 resurgence.

“We have people wanting to do portraits with Santa, and as of now, (we probably can),” the couple said. “But it’s pins and needles of uncertainty. Living in that uncertainty is wearing us all down.”

Still, these company-wide changes are going to stick, the Gaudes said.

Listening to people with open ears, hearing people’s stories before telling their stories on canvass -- “the things we uncovered are really eye-opening,” the couple said. “Everyone is finding ways to adapt. None of us can afford not to.”

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