UNL student seeks happiness, not money from photography business

Story and video by Grant Muessel, NewsNetNebraska

About 15 years ago, Wyn Wiley was upset with his kitten slippers.

“Kitty not happy,” the distraught 5-year-old said to his parents. “Kitty not happy!”

Mary Wiley, his mother, had to sew the corners of the cat’s mouth up into a smile in order to make the feline faces on the toes of his footwear look happy.

The incident was a preview, perhaps, of her son’s young adult life: making people smile by any means necessary.

The  20-year-old self-taught photographer now owns his own studio and makes more than $40,000 a year by shooting 40 to 50 senior portraits and weddings every other weekend.

He’s taking 20 credit hours this semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has plenty of homework and projects as a music and advertising double major.

He’s in the UNL honors programs and two choirs – Big Red Singers and University Singers.

And he volunteers to speak at local high schools about  entrepreneurship and photography


He does it all with an upbeat attitude, friends say, doing whatever it takes to put a smile on someone’s face. He wants to be a “day-maker.”

“He can’t stand just sitting around,” said Emily German, Wyn’s friend from college. “He is the definition of YOLO. He is the definition of happiness.”

Something about cats

And somehow, cats are always involved.  The Wiley family had cats from the shelter in their home when he was growing up, so they show up in Wiley’s Twitter profile pictures and on the 20 cat shirts he owns.  The first word on his photography website is “MEOW” in big, boldface letters.

Unlike his cats, which sleep for much of the day, Wiley is awake so much that his parents worry about his caffeine intake.

When Wiley was growing up, his mother thought she was raising a pediatrician because of the way he intently watched children interact and  the way he watched over younger brother Dane in such a protective, paternal manner.

“It was honing his skills for watching people,” Mary Wiley said.

Dancers Ben Rivera and Sally Glaze pose on a windmill.

There was also his art, which father Steve Wiley called impressionistic. Wiley wasn’t the standout in art class, but his projects were unique for the sake of being different. The father remembers one project in particular that his son created in third grade: a paper mache cat, of course.  The cat’s wire whiskers were twisted and crumpled.

“They could have been straight, but he made them crumpled, you know, and that made it different,” Steve Wiley said. “When’s the last time you saw a cat with crumpled whiskers? You don’t.”

Middle school came next, where fitting in was more important  than being creative and being unique isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Middle school years aren’t easy when you’re different, as Wyn always knew he was. Those years are particularly difficult when you’re called a “queer” or “fag” every day. They’re the worst years of your life, if you’re Wyn Wiley.

They’re not easy when you’re gay and no one really knows – not even your parents.

Fitting in in high school

But high school was better.  Wiley found more friends at Lincoln Southwest. The cliques at Southwest simply left each other alone. Wiley took up choir, finding somewhat of niche. He became what he called a “floater.”

“I found out that I fit in small amounts with different groups,” he said.

It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that Wiley first picked up a camera: his dad’s Nikon D80. Steve Wiley was a hobby photographer, but all the talk about film, darkrooms and development hadn’t interested his son. But the Nikon D80 was digital, and one day, Wiley took some shots of his cat Pepper through a glass door.

“Damn, this is rad,” he remembered thinking.

Steve Wiley never got the D80 back.

Instead, he gave it to his son for his 16th birthday — in place of a car. Wiley caught rides in with friends all the time anyway, so he turned down the offer for a car of his own. It turned out to be a good thing, Mary said.

“I think Wyn’s luck is that he was brought up in a family that you were taught to be outgoing,” she said

“He spent his entire high school career bumming rides from other people. I think that was another social aspect of his life because that was another way to get to know people, and he liked it. He wasn’t going to give it up.”

Wiley didn’t care much for his father’s photo advice or ideas, and the two view camera equipment differently. When Wiley recently bought a new camera, his dad wanted to know why that model. Wiley told him that it was better for shooting faces.

“He wants to figure people out, not things,” Steve Wiley said.

Red Bull and reminders app

Skip ahead to the present. Wiley is a junior at at UNL, where he switched from a music education and business double-major to music and advertising.

He does homework and edits photos late into the night, always ready to respond to a text message with the energy often coming from Red Bulls and Monsters. The reminders app on his iPhone might be the best part of the smartphone, he says. He edits hundreds of photos and answers dozens of emails.

His Twitter feed sometimes reflects his disdain for taking classes he’s qualified to teach.

“Oh well,” he smiles. “YOLO!”

He pokes fun at the phrase, so much so, in fact, that it’s become his trademark.

Wyn Wiley Photography has been in business since his junior year at Southwest. He opened his studio in the Iasan & Sebastian Salon building last year. He’s become so busy that he’s planning to limit the number of senior portraits to fewer than 20 in 2013.

“Less is more if you can produce quality work,” he said.

The $40,000 he churns out in a year all goes back into the business and school. Studio rent downtown isn’t cheap, and he’s got 12 lenses, collectively worth about as much as a new Chevy Camaro. He splits the cost of tuition with Mom and Dad; the rest is on him and the business. But at least Steve Wiley, a former attorney, handles the books and taxes.

Appreciation of entrepreneurs

His parents, entrepreneurs in their own right, are self-employed, offering new ways to buy and sell real estate. They think it’s probably where Wiley learned to appreciate being his own boss. They joke about him being self-employed, playfully asking why he seeks self-employment, despite seeing what their self-employed lives entail.

Thankfully, there’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest to help him market. Wiley thrives on the networking of the job, according to his parents.

“I think photography is kind of his social ticker,” Steve Wiley said. “But he’s probably a socially driven animal.”

Wiley can’t stop to get coffee from The Mill or pizza at Yia Yia’s without running into a friend or someone he knows. That experience is magnified on the UNL campus.

Nebraska freshman guard Max Ritchie. Courtesy Wyn Wiley Photography

He’s garnering some fame in the Nebraska photography scene as well; he’s worked with the UNL men’s basketball team doing photo illustrations. The shoot gave his website 7,000 page views the day it went live. That was a step up from the average 1,000 daily page views his website typically gets.

He’s been featured on photography blogs like FStoppers and Seniorologie.

His parents are feeling the love, too.

“Are you related to Wyn Wiley?” people ask around town when they overhear the pair talk about their son.

The name recognition stretched all the way to Kansas City, where a store clerk asked Mary Wiley about her son when she wrote the name “Wiley” on a check.

“That six degrees of separation, it’s probably down to five now,” Steve Wiley said.

Roots of a successful 20-something

Photography is, quite literally, in the Wiley blood.

Wiley’s great-great-grandfather was a portrait photographer in the 19th Century.

His parents wonder if maybe Wiley’s drive comes from his  half-Russian, half-German grandmother Mia, who lived through World War II in Europe with her late husband, avoiding bombs and eating out of trashcans.

“She has the will of a Panzer tank on steroids,” Steve Wiley said. “She’s happy when she’s working.”

Steve Wiley, whose father attended the military service academies, wanted his son to  seriously consider them. Although Wiley thought attendance at the academies might give him an opportunity to see the world in another light, he ultimately decided against them. He wanted to be closer to home, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” still weighed heavy on him.

For Wiley, photography is not about the money, the notoriety, the “likes” on Facebook or the page views.

“I’m out to not have fame, but to have people appreciate my art,” he said. “I just want to create art for the sake of creating art. If people appreciate it, then they do.”

The privilege of the job

It’s a privilege, he says, to  make his clients feel good about themselves. If he can make a client feel like a beautiful person, inside and out, he’s done his job. Like his grandma Mia, he’s happy when he’s done his job.

Imagine, he says, what it’s like to give that feeling to people nearly every day of his life, and have it be his job.

“That’s so cool to give to someone – to have someone be so confident about who they are.”

The money’s nice, and it supports his lifestyle of shooting photos professionally while he’s paying for most of his college costs, but he said it’s not what drives him.

“Money is just a thing that has happened as a by-product of it. I found photography as a passion first, and I think that’s true of a lot of photographers. Being able to have your passion be your job is such a rare thing, but when it happens, it’s freaking awesome.”

Photography, and, of course, cats, remain the two loves of Wiley’s life. The two go hand in hand, he says, because it’s impossible not to like cats.

So naturally the kitten slippers still in his closet are smiling.


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