"the Instagram Dream": the Story Behind Your Favorite Photographer's Road to Success / by Alexandra Fox

Pei Ketron’s Instagram comments are filled with words of adoration from her 840,000+ followers. Her admirers extol praise for her photographic brilliance, appreciation for her clean aesthetic, and envy for her picture-perfect lifestyle.

I meet Pei for brunch at Tartine’s Manufactory location in the Mission. She’s running late, so I have her text me her order. When it arrives, I realize she’s picked what’s got to be the most picturesque sandwich in the place: two perfectly rounded bread halves with a riot of tomato red in the middle. When you get thousands of people liking your posts of foods-around-the-world, I guess you get pretty good at reading a menu.

Ketron’s portfolio paints a pretty image - there are the rare perspectives of beautifully-designed spaces, aerial views of spectacular cities, and endless moments captured from seemingly every corner of the world. Ketron is living many a person’s dream: she has built a career of her art, and makes a living traveling the world with her camera.

In the age of 12MP mobile cameras, it seems everyone is looking to turn their everyday snapshots into a marketable brand. Ketron’s photography career is an Instagram fairytale: she takes great photos. She built an audience. She racked up followers, then brands took notice. Today, Ketron boasts clients from Adobe and Apple to UNICEF and Save the Children. Her work has taken her to some of the most iconic landmarks and hidden natural escapes. Her Instagram feed scrolls like an art editorial... but life hasn’t always been this glamorous.

In many ways, Ketron’s story is quintessentially millennial.

Growing up, college had always been sold as a necessary step toward a successful future. “Psychology was one of those majors you choose because you’re really interested in it, but there’s no practical career application”, Ketron laments. She graduated from Pomona College in 2002 - a time when median wages for university graduates were beginning their long decline, and the unemployment rate rising. Like many, Ketron struggled with how to translate her classroom learnings into the real world.

But she had always been interested in education, and found a position in New England to work with special needs students. At the time, photography was still a hobby she had only recently picked up. She'd bought her first camera at Walmart - one of the cheapest film options available on the shelf - for a college semester in Prague. She chronicled her adventures, and returned to the States with a binder full of her favorite prints. On seeing these, a couple close to Pei’s family noted her artistic eye and natural ability. They lent her their own film SLR for practice.

At some point, Ketron started bringing her camera into the classroom to take photos of her students. She would get prints made and send them back to parents, many of whom were so pleased, they reached out for photo sessions outside of school. These were her first paid gigs as a photographer. 

When Ketron moved to the Bay in 2004, she continued teaching but picked up additional work in portrait and wedding photography. She was already active on LiveJournal, and would upload her shots to the photo community there. LiveJournal became part of her daily life. “I would go on a hike with my boyfriend and think: How will I write about this on LiveJournal later?” Ketron laughs. “I remember thinking: this is such a big part of my life, and I’m never going to leave it. Then of course, things change”.

By change, she’s referring to the passing value of different photo-sharing and social platforms. For Pei, LiveJournal gave way to Flickr... which would later give way to Instagram. “When Flickr came around, it took me a while to figure out how I wanted to use it”, she reflects thoughtfully. “But I realized the allure was the community. Then it was exciting, figuring out how to engage with people and what people wanted to see”.

Ketron gave herself five years to build up photography work while teaching... but it would take much longer than five years to make the jump to a full-time freelance career. In part, she struggled to monetize on the work she actually loved. “The photos people liked and responded to were my travel pictures” Pei recalls, “...but I had no idea how to make money off that. So I stuck with teaching”.

It wasn’t until 2012 that a move to New York with her then-boyfriend would force Ketron to change course. Ketron's California teaching credentials didn't qualify her for the same roles in New York, so she was forced to prioritize the photography work that until then, she'd struggled to turn into a full-time career. She picked up what what jobs she could - second shooting for events, photo editing, and even teaching a few courses. As Pei says, “it was a hard entry into the photo world”.

... Meanwhile, Instagram had emerged.

By the time Instagram came around in 2010, Ketron had shed the “I’m never going to leave it!” ideal she’d held with LiveJournal and Flickr. “I was old enough to realize that things don’t stick around forever”, she says matter-of-factly. Instead, she thought about how she could incorporate the platform into her life in the most valuable way at the time.

As one of the earliest adopters of Instagram, she quickly grew an audience for her incredible photos. By the time she moved to New York, two years after Instagram launched, she had over 200,000 followers and was featured everywhere from Instagram’s own blog to Complex Magazine for her iPhone photography.

Despite this popularity and growing recognition, Ketron maintains that life was much less picturesque than her online profile made it out to be. In early 2013 she returned to California with her boyfriend, only to break up shortly after. Here, Ketron takes a turn on what has become a fairly commonplace San Francisco story: she could no longer afford skyrocketing rent prices, and her non-tech-industry work wasn’t enough to cover cost of living. So she packed her bags, moved her earthly belongings into storage, and took off.

“I started traveling not necessarily because I had the time or opportunity. I literally just could not afford to stay in San Francisco” - Pei laughs, but she doesn’t downplay the urgency with which she’d had to leave the city.  “Even if I felt I could pay $2000 for a month in a studio, I couldn’t sign a lease because I had no idea how long that could last”.

So she left – first on a month-long drive across the country toward her parent’s house in North Carolina. Then she took a flight to Asia, and kept going from there. Of course, she chronicled each step of her journey on Instagram. “I was getting all these comments from people: ‘Your life is amazing. I want to do what you do. You have my dream job!’. And in my head I would think: You don’t know that I’m heartbroken, and broke! The only reason I was living abroad was because I couldn’t afford rent in my home city”.

But in 2013, while Ketron was still abroad, everything started to change. In Pei’s words, “the market caught up” to what she and others had already discovered about Instagram: it’s value in building community and connecting users. In the year following Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for US $1 billion, it seemed businesses everywhere were rushing to test the platform to promote their products. Instagram rolled out a new Explore page that made it easier to find and share photos. By Christmas, it introduced its first sponsored post.

Those who had built large followings - or influencers, as they were now being called - started receiving unprecedented inbound interest from fitness tea blends, mobile gaming apps... and travel tourism boards. Ketron received offers from companies and destinations for free lodging and airfare in exchange for photos taken in their space. In the beginning, few offered to actually pay for the work. “No one really knew what the value of, say, one Instagram post really was”, Pei says. It took a while for both sides to figure that out.

At first, Ketron had no idea what rates were at play and was shocked by some of the astronomical advertising budgets big brands can wield. Her advice to other freelancers and would-be photographers?: Reach out to others about industry rates, and talk with peers to get a sense of what your work can fetch in the market.

She says this as though it’s the most normal thing to reach out to a stranger and ask how much they make. But in her world, it is. It’s commonplace to message someone you’ve never met and ask them to show you around their city. Users like Ketron have built careers off community engagement.

Ketron talks a lot about community, and her words might sound disingenuous if not for the earnest sincerity with which they’re delivered. She speaks of Instagram like it’s her family. Engaging with followers isn’t just brand building - Ketron cares about other users on the platform and cares deeply about 'giving back to the community' - an idea that comes up a lot in our conversation. For Ketron, giving back manifests in responding to individual requests, sharing advice, and meeting with anyone who wants to pick her brain over coffee. When I ask Pei about any mentors she’s had in her own career, she responds: “the community mentored me”.

In the end, steady income from photography work didn’t start until late 2014 – four years after Ketron had first built a name for herself on Instagram, and over two years of struggling as a full-time freelance artist.

Even now, Ketron admits that work is still fairly sporadic, though she makes enough to cover expenses. “It’s very feast or famine, as with any freelance life”, she maintains. But like any freelancer who makes it their living, Ketron has really perfected her hustle. This is apparent in the sheer number of projects she’s involved in. In addition to booking photo gigs, she teaches photography classes around the bay area, hosts workshops, and does odd jobs like last weekend’s Snapchat takeover for SF travel.

Ketron is quick to declare that Instagram won’t last forever. She’s said this to me several times, always in a very matter-of-fact way. Instagram is a big part of her life, but she continues to think ahead and beyond it. Of course, that’s not to say Pei isn’t deeply loyal to the platform that has helped build her career. Rather, she’s realistic about the fact that Instagram is not the end-all in photo sharing.

Yet, Ketron remains optimistic about how the platform is evolving. Specifically, she points out the ways in which users like herself - influencers - are using their positions to highlight social issues and encourage positive change. She herself continues to explore new ways to utilize her own platform and audience.

“There’s still a lot I’m figuring out. The Bay Area has been my home for so long, and I love it. I love so many things about it”, she laughs. “But I feel like I can’t throw a rock without hitting a programmer or engineer. I miss the diversity of other cities. San Francisco is an amazing place, but because it’s so amazing for some... it’s become less so for others. I’ve been in the Bay Area for twelve years, and I’ve seen how much it’s shifted. And while that’s great in many ways, it isn’t what’s always best for everyone...”

I ask Ketron whether Creatives are fleeing the Bay Area. She nods thoughtfully: “I know a lot of photographers who have been priced out and moved to Oakland the past years… now, they’re going to Portland or LA. We don’t want to see all the artistic talent leaving San Francisco, but that’s what a lot of us are being forced to do”.

It seems I’ve caught Ketron at a time when everyone else is trying to make a living of their lifestyle by sharing it online, but she’s looking for ways to move on. She tells me she wants to scale back and focus on building her personal, private life…. I wonder if this means stepping back will be the next big thing in social media.

We wrap up our two-hour-plus brunch and walk out to an uncharacteristically sunny San Francisco mid-day. I give Pei a warm, sincere hug and implore her to keep in touch. She nods and smiles: “text me your Instagram”.

All photos courtesy of Pei Ketron, @pketron.