Tommy Corey, a Portland-based photographer, is using his art to show more diversity in the outdoors world. After thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, he realized the need to work towards creating a greater sense of belonging for people of all backgrounds in the outdoor community. And now, he’s doing just that.
Tommy Corey, an outdoor portrait photographer from Redding, California, focuses his work on diversity and inclusion geared towards the outdoor community. Tommy’s interest in photography began at an early age. At just 12 years old, he witnessed an older classmate take pictures of one of their peers at school, and the girl featured in the photographs was moved to tears because she had never seen herself as beautiful before these portraits. This experience inspired Tommy, and he knew he wanted to make people feel that same way. His dad purchased him a 35mm Olympus, and so began Tom’s love of photography.
In 2018, Tommy thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a total length of 2,653 miles. Thru-hiking, an end-to-end backpacking trip on a long-distance trail, as you can imagine, is not for the faint of heart. Along the way, Tommy created a body of work called Hiker Trash Vogue where he photographed long distance hikers pretending to be high fashion models. When he finished the trail, Outside Online had featured his work.
While the response was mostly good, Tommy was called out for the fact that his work lacked diversity. Upon receiving this feedback and reflecting on his trek, Tommy recalls that on an approximately 2700 mile hike that spanned over 5 months, while he met hundreds and hundreds of people, he had met less than 5 People of Color on the trek. Overall, the individuals he met were primarily white, straight, and cisgendered.
As a gay man, Tommy found this frustrating. He took that criticism, applied it to his work, and intentionally began seeking out more members of historically excluded communities (think LGBTQIA++, BIPOC, people with disabilities) to listen and learn about their experiences in the outdoors world. Instead of being defensive about his work being critiqued, Tommy took the opportunity to use this experience and developed a video series where he interviews individuals within the outdoor community, covering a range of topics ranging from racism and body inclusivity to varying disabilities. The goal of this project is to move beyond just taking portraits of people and allow individuals to share their stories and experiences.
Speaking of this, Tommy shares, “I think there’s so much power in people being vulnerable and telling their own story. While these short films are about the outdoors, it’s more about the person and what experiences have led them outdoors.”
In Tommy’s opinion, people are hesitant to embark in outdoor sports when they don’t see themselves represented in these spaces. “If you don’t see yourself represented or if there isn’t gear that actually fits your body, of course you will feel like those spaces aren’t for you.” This is also one of the reasons that Tommy wants to continue creating more space for the voices of diverse individuals in the outdoors so that hopefully more people can feel a sense of belonging in the outdoor world.
In 2016, Tommy started the PCT but ended up quitting after hiking about 900 miles, but after getting back home, he decided he missed it and wanted to finish the trail. He saved his money, restarted from the very beginning in 2018 and finished the entire 2600 miles this time. “The entire trek took me 175 days, and it was hands down the best experience of my life. It changed me in so many personal ways and it changed my career and the way I saw my work.”
Prior to the trek, Tommy was primarily doing wedding photography and various other jobs to make ends meet while also bartending. So the trek truly changed the trajectory of his career. “The thru-hike was a way to overcome feeling inadequate about my work, and what I was creating. Since I picked up a camera, all I ever wanted to do was create and make people feel beautiful and special. Doing weddings is important, but I wanted to do something bigger and be able to create a bigger impact. The thru-hike helped me take my work and make it into something that allowed me to use my craft to create change where I want to see it.”
For inspiring creatives, it can feel challenging at times, especially in the age where everyone’s work is highly visible due to social media. The thing that helped Tommy and the advice he would share with others is that we shouldn’t compare ourselves or our work to others. In Tommy’s words, “Content and art is all subjective. The number of followers you have don’t dictate how important or valuable your work is.”
Written by Chrissy King