Kathy Kupka is a portrait photographer, specializing in children and pets, who started her business in 1998. Her love of photography was apparent even as a child. Kathy shares, “I always had a camera as a child. Growing up, I was the only one of my friends with a camera, way before cell phones and digital files, so of course, it was film.” Kathy graduated from high school in 1967. At that time, women either became a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher. Kathy became a secretary and was a secretary most of her life. She reminisces, “When I graduated from high school, we didn’t have a really good counselor to talk to that would have said, ‘What do you love to do?’ I probably would have said photography.” Although not her dream career, Kathy was grateful for the steady paycheck.
At 19, Kathy married and had two children, and took some time off to raise her kids. After a few years, she went back full time as a secretary, but started taking night classes at her local community college to earn her associates degree for business. She wisely decided to make one of her elective courses a photography class. It was there that Kupka learned the dark room. She loved the whole process of black and white film photography and only reluctantly says that, “WITH FILTERS”, digital photography can come close to TRUE black and white.
A year after graduating with her business degree, her husband got a job in Chantilly, Virginia. Once there, she learned of a great photography teacher at NoVa named Eliot Cohen and began taking his classes. Kathy would work during the day as a secretary and take photo and dark room classes at night. She studied under Cohen for years. It was during this time that Kathy’s first grandchild was born. Says Kupka, “The minute my grandson was born, I was taking pictures and I realized that I love taking picture of kids!” She took that new found discovery and began photographing families of the people she worked with at no charge. These photos would be used for her photography class assignments.
Once she got comfortable, she started booking appointments and charging for her work. She shares, “My husband said, based on my bookings, ‘It looks like you’ll at least be making this amount of money, so you can quit your full-time steady paycheck job during the day to do your photography business’.” So in September 2000, Kathy had a lot of work lined up for Christmas and was quite busy. She took a break to head to New York City with a friend and all of a sudden got very sick. Kathy ended up in the hospital with Pneumococcal Pneumonia for nine days. It was the first time in her life that when she wasn’t working, she didn’t get paid. Says Kathy, “Thank God my husband had a great job and good benefits. I had to cancel all of my Christmas appointments, I was so sick. It took me a while to get better. When I started getting better, in January, I started getting back pains. February I started getting bad back pains. I went to my doctor and was told that I needed to stretch more before I exercised.” She goes on, “Then I was photographing a little boy in my studio. I brought my dog Buddie down to distract the boy and I leaned over and I felt a horrible pain in my collarbone. I thought, ‘Oh great, first my back, now my collarbone?!’ After my clients left, I was making lunch and I leaned over to put something in the trash and I felt a snap. Long story short, I broke my collarbone picking up a 17 pound dog.”
It was then that Kathy was diagnosed with stage three Multiple Myeloma, a disease that at the time, nobody had ever heard of. Her first reaction was, “Where are the experts?” Kathy was directed to The UAMS Myeloma Institute in Little Rock, Arkansas. Years prior to this, there was no treatment available for this type of cancer, but advancements in medicine made it possible for Kupka to have two stem cell transplants, using her own stem cells. Says Kathy, “Long story short, I’ve been in remission for 17 years. Thank the Lord.”
Kathy took advantage of the times when she was feeling good, between chemotherapy treatments, to get back to her photography work. She had adopted her dog, Buddie, in 2000 and had begun utilizing her new companion (and model) to build up her pet photography portfolio. She decided to do a presentation about her life’s journey beginning with her days as a secretary up through her time during her cancer treatment. Kathy explains, “There are side effects from the treatments. When I showed the different side effects depicted with pictures of dogs, and told in a humorous way, everybody laughed. I realized that people really reacted to that part. That’s when I decided to make a book of the side effect of cancer treatment.”
Kathy put together a book signing for her newly published book, Cancer is Ruff, and sold 50 copies that night. In addition to her book, Kathy has quite a prolific greeting card business as well. Her cards feature her beloved dog photos accompanied by humorous or inspirational sayings about cancer treatment recovery. Her book is available for sale on Amazon, and you can purchase her book and her greeting cards on Etsy and at various local stores. Kupka shares, “This book is really good for people who are going through treatment. They can relate to all of the side effects. A woman called me to say that she was giving my book to her grandchildren. She wanted her family to understand what she had gone through.”
I asked Kathy if writing this book had been therapeutic for her. Yes was her answer, but not for the reason you might think. Sadly, Kathy lost her husband in 2012 and then two years later, lost her daughter in a car accident while she was working on her book. She shares, “I believe my photography and my book have been very therapeutic and distracting. I’m not just sitting around. My daughter and my husband were a very big part of the book.” Kathy has chosen to live her life being productive and honors her family and all who have suffered through treatment by creating her book and her greeting cards.
When talking about dreams and professional goals, Kathy’s story is quite unique. Coming up when profession options were limited for women in our country, the thought of a creative job was not only unheard of , it was un-dreamed of. Stepping out in her career as a secretary, Kathy never imagined that she would later become an award winning professional photographer or a published author with a product line! Says Kathy of her photography business, “In the beginning, my dream was to just be photographing families and kids. I never even thought of a book or cards.”
Through her professional and personal journey, Kathy has done her share of public speaking. She would get requests to speak at hospitals and she now offers, what she calls, “presentations”. She can be hired to talk to groups about photography. This step out onto the public stage took some major changes on Kathy’s part. Says Kupka, “I belong to Toastmasters. I could never say my name on stage, even though I never stop talking in social settings. I was invited to do presentations at different hospitals and that’s why I joined. Public speaking is very hard. At my first Toastmasters meeting, they asked me to get up and introduce myself. They must have thought that I had a real problem because I think I cried. It was awful. I don’t know what happened! I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or what, but now I don’t care! But still, you don’t want to make a fool out of yourself. Lol!”
Through her career Kathy has been able to meet so many wonderful people. It is her biggest joy (after her kids and grandkids, of course). After all of her years as a professional photographer, she still looks for ways to challenge herself and for ways to give back. Last Fall, Kathy set a goal for herself to photograph a different dog, wearing a pink cape, every day for the month of October with all proceeds to benefit the Loudoun Breast Health Network. Her commitment to the project was real and her commitment to the cancer community is also very real.
Kathy Kupka is a living example of fortitude. She encourages everyone to never give up. She says, “Never give up. You never know, somebody might pick up on what you’re doing. I’ll let you know when this happens for me. LOL. But I can tell you, just from all the people who have written to me; my book made them laugh; that is payment enough.”