DADE CITY — Emily Vickers sees the beauty in everything: sunflowers and sewing machines, Bengal tigers and carnival rides, radishes and stacks of old luggage cases. Her portfolio is packed with images captured by someone trying to drink in as much of the world as she can.
"Photography has given me a sense of purpose," said Vickers, 39.
"This is my calling. It makes me happy."
Vickers began snapping pictures two years ago, developing her eye for composition and picking up numerous online photography awards along the way. Now her work is being exhibited all this month at the Beck Gallery in Lutz.
And while she's thriving in this role, it took misfortune and a twist of fate to bring her here.
Growing up, she dreamed of becoming a chef and having her own restaurant.
"My grandmother taught me to cook when I was young," said Vickers. "When I saw how happy it made her to bake a cake, it made me want to do it, too."
She was studying culinary arts at the Art Institute of Tampa when her dream was derailed in April 2006. She was involved in a serious car crash in front of Saint Leo University that left her with severe back and neck injuries and a temporary loss of feeling in her left hand and arm.
"My doctor said I was two millimeters away from being paralyzed," said Vickers. "I had to leave culinary school because I couldn't take the five hour (kitchen) lessons."
After extensive surgeries and treatments, Vickers regained the full use of her arms and legs. Still determined to open her own restaurant, Vickers and her parents briefly owned the Floribbean Restaurant in Dade City. Yet the lingering effects of her injuries led to other conditions, including fibromyalgia, arthritis and herniated disks. She also developed a chronic heart problem and began to suffer fainting spells.
Within a year of opening her restaurant, Vickers found herself physically unable to run it. She closed the Floribbean.
Vickers found comfort in the love of her family, including her parents; her 12-year-old son Richard Hardman, her child from her first marriage; and new husband Chad Vickers, whom she married in December 2010.
It was during a trip earlier that year to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina that Vickers discovered her passion for photography.
"I took a little point and shoot camera along and snapped so many pictures," she said. "And when we returned to the Biltmore in December to get married, I talked to our wedding photographer about her profession. She loved what she did."
Inspired by his wife's new interest, Chad bought her a camera for her birthday. She put the gift to good use the next day at a horse show at the Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City.
"I took more than 1,000 pictures that day," she said with a smile. "Chad joked that I'd have to get better batteries for my camera."
Soon Vickers devoted much of her free time to shooting photos of the people and places that defined her world.
"I take pictures of everything — everything speaks to me in some way," she said. "I photograph animals, landscapes, nature scenes, antiques and still life."
The time spent exploring nature, looking at old buildings or just examining everyday life with her camera is the ultimate therapy, she said.
"It relaxes me," she said.
She began to post her work online in search of feedback from other photographers. And she got it in the form of more than 70 awards, many of them given through the photography website pixoto.com, which hosts weekly contests for photographers at all levels.
"I won my first first-place honor in a competition of more than 2,000 images," she said.
Also taking notice of her skills was Tana Brackins, owner of Beck Gallery in Lutz. After Vickers brought in some of her work to be printed at the gallery, Brackins offered her an Artist of the Month exhibit.
"She's got a good eye, and I love her composition," said Brackins. "Her subject matter is great. She brings out the beauty in simple objects."
From sprawling landscapes to closeup shots of various florals, to simple shots of eggs and Coke bottles, guests can see a little bit of everything in Vickers' exhibit at Beck Gallery. Including the pride she takes in her art.
"There's something about seeing my pictures on a wall in a gallery that says, 'I've made it,' " said Vickers. "This is it."