Photographic Alchemy: Project Turns Insecurites into ‘Self-Worth’

Inadequate. Fat. Whore. Kike. These seemingly unrelated, but powerful words are branded on the foreheads, arms, legs and torsos of artist Tommy Corey’s photography subjects. The words are as striking as the hauntingly personal portraits.


But they are related in Tommy’s “Self-Worth Project,” a series of portraits of ordinary people and the public revelations of their private fears and self-doubts. This collection of images, inspired by the national Trevor Project, No H8 Campaign and wave of recent teenage suicides, is not only intended to help us embrace, and move past, our most ingrained insecurities, but also put the viewer, for just a moment, into each subject’s shoes.

Unlike the project’s inspirations, The Self-Worth Project is more encompassing. Tommy’s subjects – of all ages, races, ethnicities and orientations – reveal a spectrum of personal vulnerabilities, from feelings of worthlessness, fears about inadequacies as parents, the struggles of surviving cancer, and the vice-grip that images of our bodies have on us.


Tommy, whose academic credentials include stints at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, the Art Institute of Seattle and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, started taking portraits at age 14. Memories of harassment from an eighth-grade bully are a driving force for Tommy’s work.

“I’m glad it happened; It made me a stronger person,” he says, and adds that he was glad to move on to high school, where he remembers he could be more himself.

Kerri Schuette, Tommy’s former Enterprise High School Yearbook instructor, has great praise for Tommy and the Self-Worth project.

“Tommy was a brilliant photographer with an eye that you just don’t see in kids that age,” Schuette said. “He wanted to take every picture in the yearbook. But talent behind the camera, no matter how remarkable, couldn’t have made the Self-Worth Project such an overwhelming success on its own. It is truly Tommy’s courage and compassion that propelled this project into the public eye so quickly.”


‘Propel’ is the right word for the project’s success. The Self-Worth Project’s popularity is proof that feelings of insecurity are universal. Only a month old, the Project’s Facebook page has over 4,000 friends, and growing. Tommy has accepted invitations to photograph subjects at Chico’s Stonewall Alliance Center and is working on funding to take the project to Humboldt, Seattle and San Francisco. He would like to someday compile the images into a book to benefit non-profit organizations.

No matter where the project takes him, Volume I of The Self-Worth Project is a resounding success and all of the images are effective. A portrait of “Chelsea,” a high school sophomore, posing with her departed father’s shirt, speaks volumes about a common emotion – grief – and “Marissa,” a young woman with “unpretty” blazoned across her chest, reveals feelings of being ignored by her peers.


Some images are a mallet to the head about our preconceived notions about others. Many are a celebration of human strength and courage, like “Tristan,” a 7-year old, five-year cancer survivor who lost his leg at age 2. Tristan insisted on posing for Tommy with his prosthetic proudly attached.

The portrait of young Tristan emphasizes that Tommy’s subjects aren’t ashamed or weak. Their revelations are intended to de-stigmatize, inspire others and raise awareness about the power of words. Tommy purposely doesn’t reveal his subjects’ whole story for fear that too much explanation might detract from the impact of his images. As he says, “Art in all aspects is effective because people can interpret it.”


I never did ask Tommy what his greatest insecurity is, but he admits to a personal growth process in the course of developing the Self-Worth Project. The impetus: some of the project’s most powerful language, in the portrait of “Maggie.” Maggie, the word “judged” inked across her chest, is surrounded by visual shouting – “home wrecker,” “bitch,” “party girl” and “whore.”

“She is a really awesome, sweet girl,” Tommy reveals of his friend. “But I did think some of those things about her in high school.”


My impression of the Self-Worth Project before meeting Tommy: How can a 23-year-old, with limited life experience, reveal much about human relations and introspection? I shouldn’t have judged him. The Self-Worth project did its job. It helped me realize that everyone has fears and shortcomings, no matter what we see at first glance.

Maybe Tommy’s emotional pictures made me realize that I’m most insecure about losing the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.

See a collection of images from Tommy Corey’s Self-Worth Project, through November in the gallery at Tapas Downtown, 1257 Oregon Street Redding. Meet Tommy at a reception for the artist for 2nd Saturday ArtHop, this Sat., Nov. 13, 6 to 9 p.m.

Click HERE for more information about Tommy Corey’s Self-Worth Project. Click HERE for ArtHop maps and information.

Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to

This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.
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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Troy Hawkins says:

    Stunning show….DO NOT MISS IT!!

    Tommy is a super talented artists with an incredible vision. Bring a tissue this is a powerful show!

  2. Avatar Ursula says:

    Great Story! Love the Picture of the little boy with the basketball "Survivor".
    Great Talent!

  3. Avatar Kate says:

    I had the privilege of a "sneak preview" ( I happened to be at Tapas when Tommy's work was being hung). This is absolutely touching….my heart melted when I saw the photo of Tristan, the survivor… my eyes misted and my mind tried to imagine the courage of this child and his parents! This show stirs the emotions…wondering how each one has come to make such decisions about themselves….wanting to embrace those who are hurting, shout with those who are rejoicing, cry with those who are grieving….oh my, Troy is right, bring a tissue or two!

    Thank you Tommy for your courage and your incredible creativity and insight!

  4. Avatar Susan Daugherty says:

    Thank you for this article Adam. I sure with I could see this show. I think Tommy is creating something really special here and, obviously, from the response to this project, I'm not the only one.

    It was interesting to me that Tristan's picture was not the one that brought tears to my eyes (in fact his picture made me smile and feel like cheering). I think it is because, just as when meeting people, I tend to go straight to the eyes. In Tristan's eyes, I see the survivor and a strength that makes me feel like this kid has something that eludes most adults. In the eyes of some of the other subjects, I see the residual pain and struggle for the strength that Tristan already has.

    Tommy's photos catch such a realm of human emotion it is sure to touch everyone that is fortunate to see this show. I will watch for the book.

  5. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    This is brilliant. Thank you for covering this.

  6. Avatar Kerri says:

    Tommy, I know I've told you about five million times how proud I am of you, but why stop now? Your project is remarkable (as we knew it would be) and it's because you are one giant heart with arms and legs. It's been kind of surreal to watch you transform from a sweet sophomore who played games with Maddie during deadline ("sticky!" "rabbit!" "sticky!" "rabbit!"), to being a gutsy, forward-thinking man who's changing the world. Somebody's gotta do it… and you're helping to lead the way. I am proud to live in this community with you and I love you to pieces.

  7. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    Great article Adam. I can't wait to see this show. I am moved but what you have written and the photos you shared with us.

  8. Avatar Katie says:

    Tommy!!! Whoo Hooo, Adam!!! Whoo Hooo!!!

    Thanks guys for having the poise, presence and timing to be such a brilliant light in the dark.

    The Self Worth Project does much to promote hope for everyone; it allows us to see and feel we are not alone in our darkest, most scary moments. Few projects could be more relevant, more personal or more effective in speaking of strength, courage and love to those who feel hopeless and helpless.


    Oooh and Tristan truly is something else!

  9. Avatar Kathy says:

    A prime example of ART



    in an oh!

    so Beautiful!


    Kudos to Tommy for such a transformational, relevant project.

    Deeply touched.

  10. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    AMEN to what each and every person said above.
    I'd like to think I saw this element of your creativity in 7th and 8th grade . . . unfortunately, I didn't even know you were taking pictures back then. But creative and talented? That has always been part of who you are. Tommy, I think this will take off in ways that will amaze (in the true sense of that overworked word) even you. Don't ever, EVER let anyone nay-say where your creativity takes you.

    • Avatar Tommy Corey says:

      Don't worry Ms. Jacoby! I wasn't taking picture yet. I started when I was a Freshman. Thank you for the lovely comment though. Hope to see you at the show. =]

  11. Avatar Adam Mankoski says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the great comments about this story. Tommy is an amazing, talented young man. If you haven't been to see the show at Tapas, head in and take a look. The portraits will be there until the end of the November.