There is a certain pattern to brunch with Pei Ketron. Sit, chat, debate your options – every dish sounds good, because Ketron knows the best restaurants in cities around the world. Place your order, chat some more, it’s typical so far. Then the food comes out. Ketron pulls out her phone. Friends hold their forks at a 45-degree angle, just high enough that they’re out of the phone’s camera frame. They decide who will go first. When Ketron says she’s ready, the first one pokes a fork into an egg at just the right angle to make the yolk burst out, yellow goo seeping into the rest of the dish. Each friend follows suit, quick enough so that all eggs have been poked in a single 10-second Snapchat capture. Ketron is the last to poke, still holding her phone in one hand and fork in the other.
It’s somewhat baffling to watch. How does everyone know to order eggs – poached or over-easy eggs, no less? How do they all know to lift their forks, know that this was coming? How does she manage to make the shot look so good? After the video was captured, Ketron showed me others she’s shot. This egg yolk poke is one of her trademarks – she and her boyfriend were even an egg and a fork for Halloween.
It’s such a simple thing. Or is it? In the simple act of poking yolks, Ketron made social media fun, took it beyond the expected brunch shot, and brought everyone at the table together. By the next meal with her, I was ordering eggs and lifting my fork. I don’t even know if I wanted eggs – I just wanted to be part of the fun.
Social media users around the world seem to share this feeling. Nearly one million people now follow Ketron on Instagram. On her birthday, she asked her followers to give themselves a gift, then share it with her: Buy yourself ice cream, take a photo, post it or send it to her. She didn’t do this for publicity or in the name of any brand; she just wanted to see people enjoying one of her other favorite foods. And they did. Hundreds of them, all over the world. Those who didn’t like ice cream posted shots of themselves eating eggs or potatoes (another favorite).
Ketron has been building her online presence longer than most people even knew it was an option. She shared her first photos in 2002, scanning film prints and posting them to LiveJournal. By 2005 she’d moved on to Flickr, where she built a network of fellow photographers who are now among her closest friends. By the time Instagram emerged as the platform du jour and the general population started to embrace it, she was years ahead of them. Her approach is simple, she explained in a recent phone call.
“Really engage with the app, use it often and use it well, post regularly, post good content, interact with other users, have conversations within the comments, DM someone if you have a question, embrace opportunities to meet other photographers, use it as a networking opportunity but in a really genuine way,” she summarized. She made it sound simple, but just as she did with the egg yolk poke, there’s more to it. Her content is not just good, it’s captivating. Her images tell entire stories. She brings people together through Instameets and reaches out to other Instagrammers when traveling, often asking them for tips on their cities or inviting them to hang out. She answers comments and questions from followers. She passes on her skills. Above all else, she is genuine.
Perhaps this is a testament to her background. Ketron was a teacher first, leading special education classrooms for a decade. She was a photographer throughout, but shoots had to be scheduled on school breaks or weekends. For about five years, she dedicated that time to wedding and portrait photography. She used her paychecks to buy new camera gear and to fund trips abroad. Slowly, she started noticing a trend.
“The photography I enjoyed most and that seemed to resonate more with people and felt more meaningful to me, was the stuff I was getting while I was traveling,” she said. The realization inspired her to cut back on event and portrait photography, but it took a few more years for her to decide to leave the classroom. She eventually did so by necessity, when she decided to move from California – where she is certified to teach and had just earned her credentials to become an administrator – to New York, where she is not certified. The move gave her more time to focus on her craft, to see if turning it into a career was a feasible goal.
It took nearly two years to get to a point where she felt like she had steady work as a photographer, but she stuck with it. Brands and tourism boards started inviting her on press trips around the world. The opportunities expanded as Instagram’s popularity grew, but there came a point when all-expense-paid trips was not enough. She needed to be paid for her time, too, because a week spent shooting for a travel brand was a week she could not be earning income at home. Ever a teacher, Ketron seized the chance to help set a new standard.
“People recognized that [Instagram and social influencers were] a good marketing opportunity, but they didn’t know necessarily how to go about it,” she explained. “Every time I was approached I’d ask for a budget. Slowly we saw the market evolve and budgets grew and it became more than just free trips in exchange for photos with hashtags and ‘at’ mentions.”
Ketron often traveled to Asia for shoots, a journey that brought her back to her roots. Born in Taiwan, she spent her summers there as a child and since college has returned on a regular basis. She’s also explored India, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, sometimes as a backpacker and sometimes on cushy press trips.
She’ll take the trip once again as a mentor on this week’s Passport to Asia experience with Passion Passport and Cathay Pacific, a mentorship role she feels particularly suited to take on. “I’ve traveled around Asia enough to know that traveling there can be really hard and even downright miserable, but that those are the experiences that you learn and grow the most from. I think those skills, and my obsession with delicious foods, wild cultural contrasts (old/new, rich/poor, urban/rural, etc.), and the density of major Asian cities like Hong Kong will help me in my role as a mentor for PPTA,” she said in an email.
Ketron also teaches photography classes online, offers private lessons, will be teaching a workshop for female photographers in Sonoma, California, later this year, and is often invited to speak at photography conferences and exhibitions across the United States. These opportunities to teach are something she embraces as genuinely as she does the egg yolk pole. As she does, the students are not the only ones to benefit. “It’s reaffirming to be the one who can answer the questions,” she said. “It makes me feel good about my knowledge of photography and it’s rewarding to then be able to pass that on to others and be able to see growth from them.”