A park bench sits near a still pond, orange fall leaves from a tree overhead. The image is still, serene, and beautifully composed. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was the work of an adult photographer with years of experience and schooling, but you’d also be wrong.
14-year-old Emma Ketterer takes beautiful photographs with no formal training. A native of Berks County, Pennsylvania, she also has Lyme disease: a difficult-to-diagnose bacterial infection that can cause extreme fatigue, insomnia, and cognitive impairment.
“The photography is a big therapy in a lot of ways,” says her mom, SuEllen Ketterer, “getting her body moving, getting outside, and having something positive to do.”
Emma has always been interested in photography, but she considers the starting point of her photographic ‘career’ the day her uncle gave her his old Canon 20D camera for her twelfth birthday.
“I had no clue how to use it, and didn’t even discover shutter speed until that summer,” she says. “You can imagine how much different my first photographs look compared to what I do now.”
The gift changed her life. Just six months previously, the symptoms of Lyme disease had hit her all at once. Most days, it was hard enough just to get out of bed.
“You have to understand that before I became sick I was a very active person,” Emma says. “I had been a horseback rider for seven years, I played the flute in the school band, I took part in choir and many other extracurriculars.”
When she was suddenly unable to do those things, it became hard for her to get excited about life. Photography gave Emma a new challenge that fit within her limitations.
“I was able to push myself without causing stress,” she says, “and the result of that was a physical image that I could look at as a reminder that I was trying my hardest.”
Two years ago, Emma’s grandmother put the photos up for sale at her farmer’s market booth and sold out the first day before noon. Now, Emma is featured at a local art gallery, sells photos through local flower shops, and places her photos at nearby craft shows, in addition to her grandmother’s booth.
“When I first started, I was taking photos because that’s all I could do, and it gave me a purpose,” Emma says. “Skip ahead two years later, and I’m being recognized around my town as the girl with the beautiful photographs!”
Emma is still figuring out what type of photography she likes best. She tends to take a lot of animal photos and landscapes, but would love to try more street photography. It’s important to her that none of her subjects are posed or set up like a postcard. Her goal is to share the truly wonderful moments in her life.
“To me, photography is all about capturing the raw moments of life and using that to spread a message or unite people,” she says.”
While her health has improved immensely in the past two years, even simple tasks like getting up to go to school can be tough for Emma. Her photos represent the most precious moments in her life, and remind her that happiness can truly be found in the darkest of times, as she continues to overcome any obstacles in her way.
“I’ve learned that if you really want to find peace in life, you have to learn how to use that obstacle to your advantage and embrace it as a stepping stone,” she says. “You have to take it as an opportunity to better yourself and those around you.”
This inspiring young woman has found her own way to help herself and hopefully help others around her. Taking her photos and selling them has allowed Emma to spread her own hope and joy with others, inspiring them to make the most of what they’re given.
“If I can help just one person to find that happiness in their darkness,” she says, “then I’ll have done my job as a person.”
Rob LeFebvre is an Alaska-based writer and editor.