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.
Her professional success did not dim her enthusiasm for making a positive contribution in the world. “There is a large part of me that is drawn to working with the underserved, or generally to be doing work that makes a positive change in the world. I felt strongly I was doing that when I was teaching, and I don’t always feel that when I am taking photos – but it is the driving force behind me in photography and the choices that I have made over the years.” The humanity Pei sees and feels in the world is evident in her work; her images are filled with compassion and respect. She has also contributed her time and skills to organizations such as Save the Children, Unicef, and currently Catchlight and Lalafofofo.
Pei kept her passion for teaching, too. She is proud to be a founding teacher at Firefly Institute’s Photo Camp for Women—though she wasn’t sure about Firefly at first. “I had some concerns about women’s photo camp. I didn’t know what kind of experience it would be, it was a total unknown,” Pei agreed to join because of her own commitment to teaching photography and because of the energy of camp founder Hillary Sloss. When she arrived at camp in 2016, she says, “I checked in at the registration table in the parking lot, and then I walked up those stairs, and when I saw the location my jaw dropped. I said to myself, ‘This is amazing’ and then, instantly, I felt this was the right decision.”
For Pei, camp was a “cozy experience” where campers get to know each other in an intimate beautiful setting while they explore the world of photography to see where their interests lie. Her recommendation for new campers is “to push yourself to take classes you wouldn’t normally take: you will probably find yourself surprised with the results.”
Pei’s classes are Composition 101, Social Media Best Practices for Photographers, and of course, The Ins and Outs of iPhoneography. The phone has become an exceptional camera and Pei, who was featured in Apple’s Shot on iPhone 6 billboard campaign, is an expert in how to get the most from it. The first part of Pei’s class is the full functionality of the native iPhone camera. She finishes with shooting and editing apps and guides students to put all they’ve learned into practice. “People have no idea that their iPhone, with no other apps, can do all this stuff. That’s a big eye-opener for them.”
Camp is October 11-15, 2017. Register soon to secure your top class choices.