100 Humans of the Outdoors: How Curiosity and Storytelling Can Help Build Community | Cal Parks

100 Humans of the Outdoors: How Curiosity and Storytelling Can Help Build Community

Published: September 15, 2023

A conversation with photographer Tommy Corey, and California State Parks Foundation’s staff, Haley Gonzales, Community Partnership and Impact Manager.

Tommy Corey

Tommy Corey

Tommy Corey describes himself as an outdoor photographer who has a personal focus on people of the outdoors, showcasing diversity and inclusion and access to outdoor spaces. I had been following his Instagram for a while when I read this post, which he shared in July 2022: 

“Yes, I quit the CDT [Continental Divide Trail]. It was the best decision I’ve ever made … I’m working on a huge book project that will include 100 inspiring outdoor individuals. It’s a project I’ve wanted to create for a long time, and I finally had the energy and creativity to make it happen. 

Thru-hiking isn’t everything to me. At one point I thought it was. In fact, I realized the life I’ve built for myself is way better than any hike I could ever do. I want to keep working on everything I’ve created the last few years in doing diversity / inclusion work in the outdoors. That’s the most important thing to me and where my heart is right now.” – @tommycoreyphoto 

Though we had never met, I admired his decision and was happy for him in choosing to pursue what was clearly an important project to him. At California Parks Foundation, we know how important it is for people to have equitable access to outdoor spaces, and how important it is to be seen, represented, and feel welcome in these spaces. Yet, there are still many Californians who don’t have access, or feel welcome in parks. How do we get more people into parks? How do we foster a sense of belonging? One way is through the work Tommy is doing in his upcoming book, 100 Humans of the Outdoors. I sat down with him to discuss his work, being curious, his love for nature, and how that has shaped what he sees in the outdoors and what he hopes to see for the future of parks. 

Channing Cash, Paralympian/Overlander. Photographed in Joshua Tree.

Can you talk about your work as a photographer and how that connects to your experience in the outdoors? 

I grew up in Northern California, and my dad took me and my brothers hiking, backpacking, and fishing. So, I grew up with this really deep affinity for nature. In 2018, I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and did portraits of hikers [while hiking the PCT]. Those two experiences shaped who I am when it comes to the work I do in outdoor spaces. Thru-hiking is very white and able-bodied, and very male-dominated. And so, I saw that and knew I wanted to ask questions and talk further [about these issues]. Why don’t you see more people of color out on long trails? Why don’t you see disabled people out on trails? Why aren’t we seeing people in bigger bodies that are doing these outdoorsy things? From that, I broadened the scope of not just thru-hiking, but outdoors in general.  

What has been your experience of feeling welcome in nature and in parks?  

I think I’ve always felt welcome in nature, and I think the biggest part of that is because my dad always took us to nature, and it was not just about being outside but being outside together. So, I had this association growing up that — oh, when I’m outside I should be spending that time with people. I should be connecting with people when I’m in nature. Also, I think a big part of why I feel welcome is being white-passing. I’m half Mexican, so it’s kind of this interesting duality of, I understand what it’s like to be a product of someone who [isn’t welcome in outdoor spaces] but I also very much understand the privilege of being white and being accepted.  

I think the only time I felt skeptical is before I hiked the PCT in 2018. You didn’t see a lot of other gay people or other representation in the outdoors. But I have the personality that just shows up like, “Hey, I’m here! Let’s hang out!” I was still nervous because you go through so many little towns, and I didn’t know what the culture was going to be like or what the people were going to be like. But as soon as I showed up, I felt very welcome. However, I think a lot of that is probably because of the privilege of what I look like. I think that is an important aspect to consider why I feel allowed or welcome in outdoor spaces.  

I think part of what you are doing by sharing stories and photographing these people, is being curious about others and their experiences, and encouraging people to be curious. Which can lead to, and in your case did lead to wondering why we don’t see more diversity in the outdoors. 

Why is it important for you to create your book, 100 Humans of the Outdoors, and share stories of people that have been underrepresented? 

If we’re truly going to build inclusion and truly welcome everyone into a space, I think storytelling is such an important part because it builds empathy within each other, right? It builds community hearing stories from people that are different than you — if you’re able to listen to and absorb that. That is what I want for this book, for people to look through it and read it and see all these different types of people.  

I had the idea for this project in May of last year while on the Continental Divide Trail. I was planning to thru-hike the whole thing, and I got 900 miles in, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this project. So, I quit the CDT in June and started interviewing people for this project. I went on Instagram and said, [I am looking] for anyone that loves the outdoors and I want to showcase diversity [both in the way people connect to nature and the types of people you don’t typically see represented in nature]. 

Chris Greenwell, roller skate dancer. Photographed in Venice Beach, CA.

Can you talk about a favorite memory or experience so far while creating this book? 

That’s so hard! The entire experience as a whole has been so rich with memories. I got to go paragliding in Salt Lake City. That was fun! I’m terrified of heights, so I guess doing things that scare me, that I haven’t done before, through this project has been the most memorable. Doing things that are outside of my comfort zone to really encapsulate how these people connect to the outdoors. I’m really putting myself in their shoes. I’d say that’s been the most memorable because I’ve learned new things and I’ve learned new ways to be outside. That is me truly trying to connect with the people that I’m photographing and understand, “Why do you climb?” [for example]. 

That is interesting and I think it goes back to what we were talking about — people’s different experiences and learning about folks and how they connect to the outdoors. We all have unique experiences and there isn’t just one way to appreciate nature. 

Finally, how do you hope this book will change the way folks connect with nature and each other?  

I hope it gives people who already love nature a deeper appreciation for it by seeing, and by reading these stories. When we have that deep connection with the outdoors, we take care of it. With this book, I hope to accomplish empathy and community-building, and to inspire people to see this book and see people that look like them or read stories that are similar to theirs and have them know that these spaces are for them, and they should go and take up space.  

Mary Mills, surfer. Photographed in Los Angeles, CA.

Leaving the conversation, I felt grateful for Tommy’s work. I often think that if we can create inclusive and diverse spaces in parks, that can translate to schools, work, other public spaces, and vice versa. Hearing Tommy’s experiences with the people he has interviewed, and seeing some of the images and stories he has shared on his Instagram has helped me see there are many ways to appreciate parks and nature, and there is space for all of us. It’s no secret we are in both an environmental and social justice crisis. If we can create communities who are curious about nature, parks, and each other, we can create communities who will see the value in connecting with people of all backgrounds to help care for our parks and help leave our parks and outdoor spaces better than we found them.  

Click here to learn more about and support the book, 100 Humans of the Outdoors. To learn more about Tommy Corey, visit his website, tommycorey.com

Learn how California State Parks Foundation is creating positive park experiences and equitable access to state parks by visiting www.calparks.org/equitableaccess