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Area photographer emphasizes community, connection

Josh Russell has turned his Kaukauna-based photography business into national success

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April 21, 2023

KAUKAUNA – Photographer Josh Russell said his pathway to being named 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Heart of the Valley Chamber of Commerce was not one without hardship and impactful change – but one he looks back at with reflection and appreciation.

“When I was 15, I was homeless,” he said.

After finding himself in legal trouble at age 17, Russell said he decided to start moving his life in a different direction and started pursuing a career in music.

“At that point, I realized that’s not the way I wanted to live my life,” he said. “So, going from that chapter, I started writing music. I was a hip-hop artist, and I was signed to a record label in Atlanta for about 12 years.”

As he moved through his hip-hop career, Russell said it was on him to create the promotional materials necessary for the business.

“At that time, the way record labels worked, you basically pay for everything upfront, and then when your album sales come, that’s when you get reimbursed,” he said. “So, I was in charge of shooting my own videos. I was in charge of making my own album covers and my own T-shirt designs.”

This forced independence, Russell said, prompting his first interactions with photography.

“I tried to learn photography… so I could do everything as cheap as I could – because I didn’t have any money to afford anything,” he said. “That’s how I learned photography, and it rolled from me doing my own stuff to other musicians seeing what I was doing.”

Russell said he then started doing promotional materials for other musicians, and this slowly evolved into Josh Russell Studios, the photography business he operates today.

“People saw I was working with some businesses over the years,” he said. “And now I’m in my third year running a six-figure photography business.”

Nationwide reach
From an early point in his career, Russell said he was determined to not limit himself to a single type of photography.

With that goal in mind, Russell said he has his hands in many different sectors, including wedding, portraits and landscape photography, commercial and advertising photography and even videography.

Although he operates his business through his studio in Kaukauna, Russell said his reach has gone far beyond the Fox Valley. 

“My secondary space is in Orlando,” he said. “I go down about a week every month and try to line up a bunch of work. I shoot a lot at Universal Studios Orlando, and I still shoot engagements and wedding photos down there. And then my third place is in Nashville. I work with a record label there I know from my music career. I shoot all their promo photos, and I shoot most of their music videos.”

His reach doesn’t stop there, as conferences have sent him to a variety of other locations throughout the country.

“I was in St. Louis for an entire week (earlier this year),” he said. “I’ll be in Nashville for a conference later this year. I will be in Dubuque, Iowa, at the end of the year. I’ll be in Miami teaching at a conference. How I’ve looked at it is – I don’t ever want to be pigeonholing myself to one area when my work can be done anywhere.”

// out of Kaukauna, Josh Russell has worked with the local Kaukauna Fire Department to take photographs of its firefighters. Photo Courtesy of Josh Russell Studios

Russell said he’s had this mentality since he was a musician.

“I didn’t want to be a ‘local’ rapper – I wanted to be known as far as I could go,” he said. “And that’s the same way I’ve looked at photography. I have never said I’m a local photographer… I’ve always looked at it as ‘I’m ready to travel, I’ll go anywhere you want me for a photograph.’”
Building community at home
Even though Russell emphasizes a national reach with his business, he said the Fox Valley is still the place he admires most.

“Being in the Fox Valley, not only has it allowed me to realize what I have here as far as a small-town community – I’m friends with the mayor, I talk to the Police Department and I work with the fire department on their photos,” he said. “But it’s also allowed me to create a community of other photographers in the area. I wouldn’t necessarily call them followers, but when I put workshops together, I always know there’s this core of photographers who are going to come to any workshop I teach, and it’s amazing.”

Russell said the networking aspect of his business is just as fulfilling as his success. 

“As much as I love the business side of it, I think the networking side is what’s been important to me around here,” he said.
“Watching these photographers, I’m helping grow and learn, I would have loved to have someone like me when I was learning.”

Even as his business continues to expand, Russell said he knows he will always maintain a business and personal connection to this region.

“My wife is from Kaukauna,” he said. “She grew up in Kaukauna, so even if we were to ever relocate, which eventually would be the plan, I would still definitely keep my business here. Our friends are here, our family is here. It’ll always be a place where I’ll have my business, and it’ll always be a home to me.”
Giving back
As a successful entrepreneur, Russell said he now finds himself in a unique position to give back.

“I help out at Kimberly High School with their mentorship program,” he said. “I’m also in line to speak at some homeless shelters and domestic abuse shelters this year.”

Russell said he prides himself in helping others learn what he has learned over the years – through classes, 1-on-1 sessions and workshops, helping others grow their passion for photography into a potential career.

“(I do) all of that because of the motivational side of it,” he said. “I want to make sure everybody knows there is an outlet no matter what kind of struggle you’ve been going through in your life. I use photography. It doesn’t have to be photography, but there are outlets to get out of the chaos of your mind.”

When Russell teaches classes and workshops at the conferences he attends, he said his teaching style focuses on approachability.

“So, you bring your camera, we go out and we shoot different locations,” he said. “(Photo walk style) is what I teach because I feel it’s more entertaining, and I always tell people who join my class, ‘I don’t want you to follow everything I do, but if you can have a fun time while you’re out here and learn one tidbit of knowledge, then I feel like I succeeded.’”

Russell said he wants to make sure those who learn from him are maintaining a lightheartedness as they take in the photography lessons he’s providing.

“It’s what’s got me going to all these different conferences because of the way I teach and the fun I have,” he said, “I’m goofing around. I’m joking with people. It’s not like a class. To me, it’s getting together with a bunch of photographers and showing them what to do and how to do it.”

Russell also shares his photography adventures, knowledge and advice with aspiring photographers through his YouTube channel.

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