Photographer, teacher, traveler and volunteer Pei Ketron exudes quiet, human thoughtfulness, even in the crowded noisy café where we meet. It’s clear that she’s told her story before—16 years of shooting, a long path from special education teacher to Instagram influencer and accomplished professional photographer—but she tells it again, to me, as if it is the first time. Her ability to be present and mindful is an essential element of her unhurried, dynamic photography. “I have the patience to find something good and then wait for the right moment to make the image happen,” she says.
Pei’s journey through photography mirrors her approach to shooting: it was both considered and fortuitous. She majored in psychology and became a special education teacher. For ten years, she was in the classroom and photography was a hobby—though a particularly meaningful one for both Pei and her students. “I would take photos of my students and send them home. It can be really difficult to photograph kids with special needs, particularly more severe needs like the kids I was working with. So parents would say ‘Wow, we don’t have any nice photos of our kids, can we hire you to do a portrait session?’” Later, parents and colleagues started asking her to photograph their weddings.
She earned enough to buy photo gear and fund travel. “I made it a goal to leave the country once a year. Back then, coming from my background, it was a big thing to save enough money to travel every year.” As she traveled, Pei captured images for herself and shared them online.
She started planning a career transition and building a business around wedding and portrait photography, “because I knew that as the one way I could make money. I didn’t know anything about any other type of photography. I didn’t know about photo journalism, about editorial work, about shooting ad campaigns, agencies, none of that.” Even as she tried to build her business, she realized “that my best images, the ones that really made people go ‘wow’ were the ones I shot when traveling.”
Pei joined Instagram early because “it was fun and I loved sharing photos online,” and suddenly she was “in the right place at the right time.” Pei explains that she quickly gained an audience and then “I was well poised when the advertising market shifted and started looking at Instagram as a place to source photographers and hire photographers to do influencer campaigns. I was in on the influencer work from the beginning.” Part of this new path was “educating clients about the fact that we are photographers and we need fair wages.” She carved out a space for herself and gained almost a million Instagram followers at the same time.
For four years Pei has worked for clients such as Apple, Pfizer, Mercedes and Michael Kors. She was even featured in an Icelandic adventure advertisement for American Express.