Hannah Thompson in her photography studio
Hannah Thompson owns Reel Photography, a Wichita photography business that specializes in creative portraits and includes a selfie museum. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Hannah Thompson has the special skill of transporting people from Wichita to wherever they want to go — but not by plane, train or automobile. She does it with photography.

Thompson’s photography business — Reel Photography, LLC, which opened in November 2020 — is unique in that she edits many of her portraits to transform her subjects. Some are floating from a bouquet of balloons. Others are on the beach. 

“It’s not a lot of photographers here that really dabble in cutting somebody out and putting them on the beach, you know?” Thompson said.

And in the past year, her business has expanded. Thompson, 22,  opened her brick and mortar studio at 2326 E. Douglas Ave., last May. In September, she opened the city’s first selfie museum — decorating the front of her studio with different multicolored backgrounds and props for people to stop in and take pictures of themselves. 

Her growth has been helped by the city of Wichita’s Providing Resources & Opportunities for Proprietors, Entrepreneurs & Lenders (PROPEL) Small Business Loan Fund, which provided a $6,000 loan in August. The program launched in 2021 to give loans to small businesses owned by women and minorities in City Council District 1. The city recently expanded the program to businesses anywhere in Wichita that serve low- to moderate-income census tracts. Business owners can receive a low-interest loan of up to $20,000. Applications for the second round of loans are open through March 18. 

The Wichita Beacon asked Thomspon about the inspiration behind her business, challenges along the way and what she hopes for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you officially kick things off?

When I first decided I wanted to do photography, I was in school at the time, I was in my sophomore year of college, and with corona and stuff, everything was online. I’m not really an online person; it’s just hard for me. 

I was doing that, as well as working. I was a waitress. It was making good money, but I was there for so long, and it was just really hard on my body. And my mama always told me: Find something that’s not so hard on you, find something that you enjoy and you make money from, but you don’t have to stress and strip your body down. So I was like, OK, I think I’m just going to go ahead and do this. I need to just start a business. I wanted to work for myself, I wanted to be in charge of what I’m doing. So I just kind of got it in my head that I want to take pictures, so I’m going to find a camera. So I’m on Facebook Marketplace, I’m searching and searching, finally I found one with two lenses. 

From then, I kind of did my research over cameras, how everything works, what goes with what. And it just went from there.

You started your photography business in 2020. Why did you want to start something like this in Wichita?

There’s not really a lot of entertainment here, especially for the younger groups. I really wanted to have my own studio where I’m taking all these creative pictures and really bringing something different to the photography game, especially here. 

I wanted to also provide a space where people can come in and be creative on their own, which is the selfie museum that I have in the front half. Just because we don’t have anything like that — anything where it’s the opportunity to get unlimited photos in front of different spots. I wanted to give that, as well as have my own creative space. That was my goal: I need to get up out of my living room and get into a studio as well as somewhere where I can create all these different sets for people to come and enjoy.

How did you get to the point where you were able to open the brick and mortar location?

So, it was really the PROPEL program that helped a lot, a whole lot. We were able to get in here on our own, but when it came to getting all the supplies in and finishing up on everything, that really helped out a lot. It was a game changer once they stepped in. 

When we moved in here, there was nothing. There were no walls. So we came in, and we finished it up. All those walls in there, we put those in. When it came to painting, decorating and all that, that’s where they stepped in. 

I watched the City of Wichita video you’re in. You spoke about how getting a business loan was really difficult. What have been the biggest challenges for you, especially a woman- and minority-owned business?

Definitely that part. Finding somebody who wanted to invest in us. Because it was really tough, especially being younger and not having amazing credit. It was like nobody’s willing to give me a $5,000 or $6,000 loan. Even anything lower than that, they just weren’t interested. So that was the toughest part. And it was super discouraging. Like, do I really have to get it myself? Is it just me on my own? 

It’s just tough, especially when you’re starting, and you have these amazing ideas that you’re sitting on. And you’re like, I just wish you guys would hear me out, because it’s really cool, and I would really go far. PROPEL really was that — that listening ear.

In Wichita, being a young person here myself, there’s a lot of talk about challenges keeping young people here. Do you want to stay in Wichita and keep your business here?

I definitely want to travel, and I want to move around with my business, and I want to be well-known everywhere. However, even if I’m not necessarily here, I want to keep something of mine here. If or when I do decide to expand, I need my spot here because Wichita needs entertainment. These kids are so bored, they just do anything. We need something here to occupy younger people, but still be fun, still be interesting. Because there’s a gap. Younger kids can go and have fun, and there’s places for them to go, but then that middle age, where does that middle ago go? Teenage, 16, 13 — where do they go? What do they do? What entertains them? The movies are only going to hold onto somebody for so long. So I want to really start building things, putting things here, to entertain that crowd. Keep that crowd busy.

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...