Professional photographer finds inspiration not only behind a lens

John Michael Laney, an award-winning photographer, sits with his camera outside of his home/studio in Paintsville. Laney’s focus has shifted from his lifelong passion to making a difference in the lives of students at the Eastern Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute.

On Sept. 23, John Michael Laney was presented with a “Small Business of the Year” award by the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce for the photography business Images by John Michael that he and his wife, Ramona, run out of their home in Paintsville.  

For more than a decade, the name “John Michael” has become synonymous with professional photography in the area. However, the story of Laney’s life’s work had to do with much more than the flash of a Nikon camera.

Although photography had been his passion since childhood, it took a great deal of effort to transform his hobby into a career.

“At 18 years old, I started working at Super America (Speedway) and put myself through college at Ashland Community College,” said Laney. “I worked at several (Speedway) locations for 21 years and went from managing to being an area supervisor and running 10 or 11 stores.

“So that job allowed me to make money and save money to do what my passion was, which was photography. Photography I’ve done my whole life, but did not actually go professional until I was able to afford to,” he continued. “I saved for 21 years to do what I’m doing with the photography. After 21 years, I decided I had my game plan together. I quit Speedway, started the photography business and now I’ve done photography for probably 16 years.”

Although Laney said that he’d never quit photography, his career focus has shifted.

“It was time for me to do something to help others and give back to others,” he said.

For the past few years he has been doing just that, serving as Kathy Walker’s assistant director at Paintsville’s East Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute. While one could assume that the role an assistant director would play within such an institution might be tedious in comparison to being a creative photographer, Laney has painted a much different picture.

“I oversee the institution and manage it. I deal with students, take care of them and help them and get them through the program,” Laney said. “But at eKAMI, you know, we’re changing lives. We’re giving people a second chance.”

Laney is no stranger to second chances. In the midst of his career at eKAMI he was diagnosed with cancer of the colon and lymph nodes. He has had surgery to battle the condition and has now finished nine of twelve chemotherapy treatments.

“When that happens,” said Laney, “it gives you a whole different outlook on life. You do what you love and you do what makes a difference. And you thank God for keeping his hand upon you.” At the end of the day you always say what did I do today to help others? That’s what life is about. God should be first, your family should probably be second, and what are you doing to give back?

“I feel like with my age and to have a third career in my life, this is a way for me to give back and to help others. It’s time for me to do something that is really helping them and it’s a life-changing thing for them to leave here and get a career and work,” he said.

A former student and now an instructor at eKAMI, Mike Cepeda, confirmed that Laney plays a large role at the institution.

“When I was a student here, he was very passionate not just about his position, but this place. He really advocated for students, what they needed, and anything he could do to help them to get through it,” said Cepeda. “He was an all-around great guy then, and he still is. I told my students yesterday when I introduced him to the class that you’ll not find nobody that will advocate for you more than John Michael. He will always be there to help you, even if you exit the program. He will always do what he can to help you. He cares about this program and what this program can do, and he gets excited when everybody gets the opportunity for employment. We all get excited because that’s what it’s about, putting people back to work.

“But John Michael absolutely loves this program and he cares,” Cepeda continued. “He really does. He has a heart for eKAMI. Sometimes we will just be talking and he will say ‘well what can we do today to help them (the students)? What can we do to make the transition easier?’”

Instructor/ Machinist Buford Owens echoed Cepeda’s sentiment.

“John Michael is the curator of eKAMI. He keeps the whole shebang running smoothly. He keeps morale up. He’s made al lot of people realize their self-worth,” Owens said. “Just by being around John is a positive. He gives off a positive vibe. He is instrumental in seeing that these students have everything they need. He’s got everybody’s back and makes sure that we’re took care of.”

Director Kathy Walker also jumped at the opportunity to commend Laney, saying, “He is such an inspiration to others. He’s a friend to the students, he’s a brother, he’s a father and he’s a mentor (to them).”

“John is a person who is driven by heart. He deeply cares about the community and the opportunity that eKAMI is providing for Eastern Kentuckians. He’s exactly the kind of person that needs to be involved. It’s about changing lives and really doing the Lord’s work. You have to be driven by heart to be able to be successful in such an endeavor. He has all of the characteristics required,” she boasted.

“Everybody has challenges and he has an ear to listen and try to help and he does try to go the extra mile. The extra mile is not for him, but for others.”

Laney unknowingly supported Walker’s claims about him, stating, “Working here has taught me to put myself second or last. It’s not about me here, it’s about the students.”

 “I may not do this forever. I will do the photography forever, but this is something that I love and it has been great. If it ended tomorrow, it’s been worth it to see the change in people that never would have had a chance in this life otherwise,” he said.

When asked what might come next in his path, Laney smiled.

“Ramona and I will probably never retire. We’re looking forward to our senior days,” he joked, “so maybe in the future we will be doing beach family photography and beach weddings.”

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