Filed in : For Creatives

5 Things I Learned When a Photo “Went Viral”

Like any other morning of maternity leave, I woke up for the day around 6AM on Wednesday, January 14. My husband and I immediately jumped into our typical morning routine: get the baby, change the baby, feed the baby, shower…etc. Before we knew it he was leaving for work and I was about to go make breakfast for myself when my phone buzzed. A friend from high school sent me a message:

“So idk if you’ve been told yet, but one of your pics is on the front page of reddit.”

Excuse me. What?

Thus began one of the craziest weeks of my life, as I experienced one of my photos from a recent wedding, go viral.

Back It Up

On Saturday, January 9, I shot a wedding in Sioux Falls. It was a beautiful day, but frigid cold. Having known the bride since high school, and having gotten to know her and her fiancé over the last year that we worked together to plan their engagement session and coordinated wedding photography, I didn’t think much of the bride’s service dog, Bella, being along for the ride the day of the wedding.

The Sunday after the wedding, I posted preview photos to Facebook as I always do. In fact, I actually felt badly because I was tag-teaming baby-duty with my husband that night, so I was only able to share two as opposed to the three or four images I like to share after a wedding.

After posting the above photo, I was surprised at the overwhelming positive reaction. I thought it was a very sweet photo and was excited to share it, but I never could have expected the amount of my friends and family who were truly touched by the image. The bride, Val, loved it too, and I was happy it was so well-received.

The rest of the week went by uneventfully until that Wednesday morning. I was told the photo was on Reddit, and a friend suggested I create an account so I could respond to some of the comments. I had never even been on Reddit before and had no idea what I was doing. While most of the comments were positive, I soon realized I would be going down a negativity rabbit hole if I kept reading the snarky ones, so I stopped. I posted on Facebook that the photo was #3 on Reddit, high-five’d myself for such crazy luck, and thought that was it.

About 3 hours later I got a call from WILX out of Michigan. The reporter wanted to chat with me about the photo being on Reddit. She told me they’d love to do a story on it, as they recently had legislation pass concerning service dogs and it was timely for them. I was thrilled, jotted down her information to send her a quick email, and texted Val to keep her informed. We were giddy with excitement, but again, thought that was it.

By the time I hit ‘send’ on my email to WILX, I had a message in my inbox with the subject line, “Hi from HuffPost!” and I almost passed out. I guess if there was any one moment where I finally figured out this was going to get bigger than I thought, that was it; but honestly, I could never have imagined it would get as big as it did.

Over the next week, I would be in touch with editors and reporters from The Huffington Post, USA Today, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Refinery 29, Country Living, AOL, Bark Box, CNN, Buzzfeed, Hello Giggles, Fox, CBS, NBC, and ABC; Zooey Deschanel and Ashton Kutcher would share my photo; local media would come to my living room to interview me and the bride; and media outlets and people from around the world would email me. After, my photo would be published TWICE in People Magazine, once as the centerfold. It would be arguably the craziest experience of my life.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have something I create go viral, but honestly I hadn’t given it much thought because it seemed so far-fetched. After this crazy ride, there are definitely a few things that surprised me about viral marketing…and a few that weren’t surprising at all.

1. It’s unpredictable

One of the first questions I was asked in almost every interview was if I thought something like this could happen. The answer is absolutely not.

Truly, I thought this moment was a sweet one, but it was one of many sweet moments that I’ve had the honor of capturing, both at this wedding and at other weddings that I’ve shot. I knew the bride would love it, and I thought it needed to be shared, but I never imagined it would grow to this level.

From a purely technical standpoint, it’s far from my best photo. I really struggled with the white balance and still don’t think I nailed it, and had to clone out some background distractions. But honestly, it’s not about the photo at all; it’s about the connection and the moment that just happened to be caught on camera. That’s one of the reasons I love photography so much! You can’t predict something like that happening, and you certainly can’t predict the reaction.

 Featured on People Magazine's Snapchat. Featured on People Magazine’s Snapchat.

2. It’s overwhelming

The fact that I was balancing the media attention with a newborn probably didn’t work in my favor, but I think even if I had all the time in the world it would have been really nerve-wracking to go through the “going viral” process. It’s pretty insane to have so many eyes on you and suddenly interested in your story.

It’s also hard knowing what to do. Both the bride and myself had tons of huge publications contact us. From a professional perspective, how does that work? When a magazine wants to print your photo, do you ask for payment? Does your photo include a watermark or byline? Or do you just do it so you can say your work was printed in a magazine?

But what about all the time put into coordination that’s taking you away from other clients, or even your family? Or do you ask them to not print it at all, to protect everyone’s privacy as much as you can? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but there is a lot to consider. The tricky thing is that in the world of viral marketing, everything is so fast paced that you’ve got to figure out how you feel…fast.

 First time in People Magazine! First time in People Magazine!

3. It makes you extremely vulnerable

Don’t get me wrong, this experience was crazy cool, but I won’t be trying to replicate it anytime soon. People on the internet have a tendency to take anything and everything and put a negative spin on it, and this story was no different. It didn’t take long for me to figure out to not read the comments sections, but it was still tough just knowing the Mean Genes were out there. The bride had a few strange run-ins with people not respecting her space in public after all this happened, and I had a very unattractive meme made out of a news interview THAT I WILL NOT BE PUTTING IN THIS BLOG POST. Not the most fond of memories.

 How hilarious are my friends though? How hilarious are my friends though?

I also got a few strange but well-meaning calls from people who saw the photo and just had to tell me they loved it. I loved the thought behind their call and was really touched—but also uncomfortable. It has definitely made me reconsider how public I am in my online life, and it resulted in me removing my phone number from my contact information until recently.

It’s ironic, because you would think that achieving this kind of recognition would make you more confident in your work, and in a few ways it has; but it’s also made me much more aware and self-critical than I already was because I know it takes a second for something to spiral and be seen by millions.

As you can imagine, Val was left extremely vulnerable through all this as well. We had some really strange interviews with people who didn’t know how to act around a service dog, which was really disappointing. Val was so great about using the interview opportunities to educate about service dogs, but some people still just don’t get it. She had people approach her and try to take photos of her in public, and nasty Internet trolls mock her disability, or assume it wasn’t real. We also had certain publications just get the story completely wrong or make assumptions, which was just plain annoying and poor journalism.

Side note: everyone should try and educate themselves on service dog etiquette! Please please, check out Val’s blog to learn more!

4. It’s over in an instant…but kind of lasts forever

It’s crazy to me that the majority of this all happened in one week. It felt like the longest week of my life! Val and I agreed that constantly triaging emails and phone calls, and needing to be readily available in case the local news was interested in an interview, was exhausting (I know…first world problems much!?). Granted, some of it was self-inflicted; I could have let some of the interviews slide and stopped responding to media. But who wants to do that!?

Going viral is pretty short lived because before you know it, people are on to the next thing. But at the same time, there are after shocks for what feels like an eternity. The photo that went viral, as well as the other Facebook photo posts that subsequently went viral, have reached over 217,000 people. They’ve been shared over 19,000 times…and that’s just what I can learn from Facebook insights.

The crazy thing is it’s still happening. I get a handful of notifications a week that someone commented on this photo, or shared that photo. Once in a while, I’ll even get a media inquiry—even though this all happened a year ago! I’ve read that when photos go viral, it’s not uncommon for them to go viral a second time, like when a blog post resurfaces or it gets a ton of pins on Pinterest. It will be really interesting to see what happens in the years to come, but I definitely don’t expect (or want!) lightning to strike twice.

5. It’s not always lucrative

This one wasn’t surprising to me, but everyone I talk to seems shocked. Just because one of my images was on the Huffington Post doesn’t mean I’m booking new clients left and right! Honestly, for a while, it was just the opposite. I was spending so much time responding to media inquiries that my current clients (and probably my family, unfortunately) fell by the wayside. It didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t how I wanted to do things and correct it.

As for how business is now? Really, really great. But I really think it’s more due to good timing and hard work–but what do I know!?

All in all, I’m beyond thankful for the experience. It was once in a lifetime, and gave me the opportunity to deal with situations I never thought I’d deal with! I think it made me a better business person, and probably a better artist. But, I also won’t be trying to get a second photo to go viral, or making any moves to get famous anytime soon. I’ve had my 10 minutes of (very little!) fame, and that was plenty 🙂

comments +

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the free shot list

Hi! I'm Maddie.

If I’m giving you my elevator pitch, I’m a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, brand photographer and educator for creative women.

Why I walked away from my biggest client


EverythinG I did before I quit my Job


How I deal with imposter Syndome


Charge your Airpods. This is gonna be good.

A podcast about the personal side of business.


Take it Personally


Join the biweekly email that inspires thousands how to build their own personal brand. Whether you're an entrepreneur, a corporate maven, or simply a human, these emails are quick and actionable for anyone wanting to confidently make their mark.

Build a personal brand in five minutes or less.