In the Dirt: An Interview with Portrait Photographer & Thru-Hiker, Tommy (Twerk) Corey

Campo, California; right next to the Mexico border, you take step one and hear the soft crunch of sand under the sole of your shoe. One mile later, you pause to take your first sip of water and pull the straps of your backpack just a little tighter. It’s mid-morning, and the sun is starting to get a little higher. You carry on. Only six months and 2,649 miles to walk before you reach Canada.

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“For me, photographing people gives you this really cool insight into them that you can only get as a photographer. Everyone photographs differently, and that’s what I love about portraiture.”
- Twerk
In the Dirt: An Interview with Portrait Photographer & Thru-Hiker, Tommy (Twerk) Corey

Every year, a couple of hundred people set out to walk the full distance (2,650 miles) of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and some of them, around six months later, see it through. One such hiker, Tommy Corey, (known by his trail name, Twerk) just completed the long journey and took his camera along with him. Being a portrait photographer, Twerk came away with something far more significant than your typical nature shots, but a completed body of work for those six months in a portrait project he’s titled Hiker Trash Vogue.

The images are a beautiful, insightful, and telling account of humanity that grips the soul and spirit of adventure, community, and human expression. I caught up with Twerk for an interview as he was passing through the Seattle area on his way to his next adventure.

INTERVIEW WITH TWERK

[Chris] Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with me! I just happened to run across you, and your project, Hiker Trash Vogue and immediately fell in love with it! Your ability to juxtapose nature, art, and portraiture is amazing, and also all of my favorite things!

First, let’s talk about the name; Hiker Trash Vogue. Where did that come from?

[Twerk] The project started organically on trail. I was calling it PCT Vogue for a while just because it’s that kind of editorial style. I called it Hiker Trash Vogue one day, and it just stuck.

You also mentioned to me earlier that people would see you hiking and recognize you and the project. It sounds like word spread around the PCT.

Yeah. I’ve had people from the AT (Appalachian Trail), and the CDT (Central Divide Trail) reach out to me about the project or ask for camera advice, and would get recognized by other on the PCT.

You said the project started organically but did you have a specific voice or story that you were trying to tell?

No. Honestly, it was just a random day. We had been on the trail for just a couple of weeks, and me and a bunch of hikers were taking the day off and got a house in this little town called Wrightwood, about 350 miles in. We were just having fun and drinking beer, and I said, “Hey! Let’s have a hiker photo shoot! Everyone grab a piece of gear!”

It was just to be funny. To pass the time and be stupid. So, I was posing everyone and making everyone model and then posted it. It got a bunch of attention, and I thought, “Oh, this will be so fun! I’ll just do this here and there in town stops or camp.” It caught on really quick.

It started as a joke, but in the end, it ended up challenging what conventional or commercial beauty standards are. Everyone that I would take photos of was probably 6 or 7 days without a shower, dirty, and we smell like god knows what. We were just disgusting people, ya know? It’s kind of funny. We all looked good just covered in dirt. Everyone I took photos of were just really beautiful, amazing people. It’s kind of interesting when you compare those photos to commercial photos of a bunch of really skinny people, photoshopped heavily — It’s just not real. I want them to look like them still. That’s really important.

It was cool to hear what other hikers had to say about it and what the project meant to them and how they interpreted it. Maybe for the first time since I picked up a camera when I was 12, I felt like an artist. I’d found my niche, and something that I could do differently than other people and people are drawing something from it. Whether they think it’s cool or they’re inspired from it.

Haha! Did I answer the question?!

Absolutely!

Would you say that this project is what lead you to identify as an artist?

I think so. I’ve done artistic things before with my photography; Nude things, or dress people in clothes from the thrift store. That kind of thing, but I feel like this is the first time that I feel like I can call myself an artist and not feel like a douchebag. Ha!

I think it took me being really proud of something. I’m really proud that I hiked that entire trail and I’m proud that I came up with an idea and I stuck to it. Some of those photos I took on the worst days. Days when I was tired and hurting, but I knew that I’d be pissed off at myself if I didn’t take the photo. I think that’s why I don’t mind calling myself an artist now. I’m just so proud of the body of work, but what’s underlined is the trail. I’m proud of that, and it’s something that I will remember and be happy that I did for the rest of my life.

I think, for a lot of us, it can take a long time to identify as an artist, myself included, even though I’d been doing art my entire life. To come to ownership of that is fucking great!

Yeah! I think it’s a word I didn’t want to throw around a lot because when I would think about art, I would think about people doing big crazy murals. I don’t paint. I’m not musical. I can’t draw. I’m not artistic in any other way that photography. You give me a camera, and I will create weird shit.

It was cool that so many people I photographed said that they thought they looked disgusting or they felt disgusting and seeing their portraits made them feel beautiful. I think in the end that just kind of started becoming my goal; To take photos of people that they liked.

So my next question is one I would typically not ask, but being that you carried everything you needed over 2,600 miles, what camera set up did you carry?

A Canon 7D and a Sigma 30mm f1.4, 3 batteries, memory cards. That’s it.

Awesome! Nice and simple.

Yeah!

When I look through the body of work, I can see a lot of intent with the images. Tell me a little bit about that intentionality and that process.

I think most of my ideas come from just looking at people’s faces. I loved posing people who looked very similar to one another. Like those two guys with their hair braided together, and I also like posing people together that looked very different from one another. I also really enjoyed posing couples because I liked seeing how people interacted in that way. For me, photographing people gives you this really cool insight into them that you can only get as a photographer. Everyone photographs differently, and that’s what I love about portraiture. Some people are nervous. Some people are comfortable. Some people are really nervous at first, and then they won’t stop moving because they think they’re a model and you have to be like “Okay. You need to stop.” haha!

For me, I would get a lot of my ideas by first getting to know people. A lot of people that I photographed are people that I hiked with. People that I became close with. A lot of those ideas were organic and happened in-the-moment. Sometimes I would see something and just wait for someone on the trail because of certain lighting I’d found or something.

This is a good segue into my next question. I’ve experienced a handful of moments myself while taking a portrait. You have this kind of connection with the subject, and it’s almost as if the camera disappears. Did that happen for you during this project, and what was that like for you?

Yeah! It happened a lot! One example is when you’re photographing someone and they suddenly just loosen up and let you work with them and pose them. More specifically, I photographed a hiker that had a mastectomy the year prior. She was done hiking by the time I caught up to her in Bend, Oregon, which is at about 2,000 miles in. So, I was in Bend and posted on my Instagram, asking if any hikers in the area would be interested in participating in the project. She contacted me, and she’d always wanted to meet me on trail and get a photo with me, and that she’d had a mastectomy and would love it if I could photograph her with her scar. She was really nervous! We had to have a couple of beers first. I could tell that she was really aware of what it meant; that we were going to take this photo and it would be posted, and all these people, and hikers, and people that she knows would see it. If you look at her Instagram, you would never even know that she’d had a mastectomy and she doesn’t talk about it a lot.

So, she took off her shirt, and I had her posed with her Thermarest and her shoes, and we got this really great photo! She was nervous but I just really tried to make her laugh and encourage her. To let her know that what she was doing was strong and inspiring and that I was just there to help her idea thrive. That was one of my favorite moments on the trail. I thought, “Wow! Here’s someone that doesn’t even know me and has seen my work and trusts me to bring their idea to life!” That was a really good feeling!

Those moments really stick in your mind!

Yeah! Someone believing in what you do so much that they are willing to be that vulnerable. It’s really cool!

I read something that you wrote not long ago. I think soon after you got off trail. You’d posted two self-portraits after looking back trying to find images of yourself, and in the caption, you said: “I tend to photograph others when I’m at my happiest, and for those six months, I was.” That resonated with me and I’d love an insight into that.

Yeah. I was in a hotel room in Bend and having a rough stretch. There had been fires in Redding and other areas, and I had been walking in smoke for over a month. I got to Bend and was so sick of smoke and frustrated that I couldn’t see anything. I just got a hotel room and just cried all night. I was asking myself if that was it. Was I just going to get off-trail? Was I just done?

I decided to book the hotel for one more night and see how I feel the next day. I set up my camera and took a photo of myself to try to portray how I felt at that moment. My thought was that if I did finish the trail, I could look back at it and say, “that was my lowest point,” and I finished. I failed, but I picked myself back up. That’s why I photographed myself.

Looking back on this project and the images you created, how do those moments feel now, reflecting on them?

It makes me really happy! But sad too, at the same time. Going through my work and working on the book for it is exciting, knowing that I did something great, but it’s also sad to know that it’s over. The trail is still really fresh, and it will be interesting to see when the book is done how I look back on the photos. In a year. Ten years. I’ll always be proud of the work I did on the trail.

And the Hiker Trash Vogue book is due out next spring?

Yeah. I want to release it at the start of hiker season, around mid-March.

Do you have a specific concept that you're working on for the book?

Yes. I have contributing writers, and I’m doing profiles on some of the hikers. I wanted to have other hikers included in it and not just my work. That’s stupid. I want it to feel like it wasn’t just me that did it and that we all came together to create it. There’s going to be little trail recipes and fun stuff in there, but the tone of it will be more serious. But silly too. It will be exactly like the trail. It’ll be funny and hilarious and outrageous sometimes. It will also be really deep and meaningful, and very intimate.

I can’t wait for that!

I’m really excited too!

All along the PCT, which landscape did you find the most inspiring?

I mean, Washington. Washington was the most stunning. All the leaves were changing, and it was also the end of the trail. There are just so many things going through your head at that point. You’re so happy that you’re almost done because you’re tired of walking, but you’re also really fucking sad that it isn’t permanent. There’s a lot of emotions in the end. I took a lot of photos in Washington, and some of my best photos are from Washington because I was the most inspired. My emotions were the highest. That’s when I feel the most artistic. When I’m extremely happy and extremely sad, and the mix of those emotions is what I feel inspired a lot of the work I did there. I was also with people that I loved and happy to be around. That was after a long lonely stretch in Oregon. So, Washington.

You just bought a van!?

I did!

Now you’re about to hit the road, full-time, with your camera! Tell me about that!

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Hahaha! I’m nervous as hell, but I’m also really excited! It’s thrilling! I’m more afraid to do this than I was the trail. I think because I have something so large attached to me now and I got so used to living out of a backpack. It was so simple, and now there’s a car payment and insurance and gas to get me places, so it’s going to be a lot different. I’m exhilarated just to be able to do what I want. What’s exciting about this in comparison to the trail is that, on the trail, you’re a slave to Canada. It doesn’t matter if you do 5 miles a day or 25. You still have to take the same route and cover the same distance. With the van, I have no clue where I will be in a month. I have no clue where this is going to take me. I think it’s the perfect thing to do after a thru-hike. I don’t feel like my reflection time is over. There’s a lot more to process, and I think I’ll be inspired to do a lot more than Hiker Trash Vogue. I don’t want that to be the last great thing that I do. I want it to be the big thing I did to inspire the bigger things.

I think you’re just getting started.

I do too!

Okay. Final question and kind of a silly one: What’s something strange or unique that most people don’t know about you?

LIke a hidden talent? Haha! Well, I lost an 8th-grade spelling bee by misspelling “illiterate.” Haha! I know how to spell it now.

Something more personal though, there's just something that’s different about me now. I feel like the trail ripped me open emotionally. I wasn’t like that before. I cry at everything now. It’s made me much more open with people about how I feel about them. It’s become important, and it’s also giving me even more inspiration.

A Note From Chris Daniels

I can’t help but find parallels in some of Tommy’s stories of the trail and those that we all face in our day to day lives, in our art and our business. Sometimes you may walk through smoke for a straight month and don’t see the sun for days. Tired and fatigued you may be ready to call it quits and head back home, but take it from Tommy. Give yourself a break and push on just one more day, and one more after that and soon enough you’ll find yourself on a mountaintop with clear skies reflecting on how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved.

Make sure that you follow Tommy along in his journeys and keep an eye out for his book this Spring 2019!

@Twerkinthedirt

www.tommycoreyphoto.com

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