Tia Thomas

Tia Thomas, Photographer; Mountain City, Tennessee:

“My husband and I had a restaurant for a couple of years, and I homeschool my kids. After we got out of the restaurant business I was at the place where either I was going to have to go back to a 9 to 5 job, I was going to have to quit homeschooling them or [I would] have to do something from home.

I got this idea that I was going to start making some bows and tutus and little things for the girls and I was going to sell those out of my house and make a living like that. When I made some, I decided to take the girls out and take some really cute pictures of them to sell the hair bow. I posted them on Facebook thinking I would sell all these hair bows, and all the sudden, people started asking me about having pictures made. And I was like, hmmm, well that’s an idea! And so, long story short, I guess that’s kinda of how I ended up in it [photography]. I won my first camera (Via a photo contest), and never looked back from there.

I do portrait photography, landscape photography [and] of course I do a lot of weddings, senior pictures, family pictures. I love to shoot landscape stuff around here, but people pay the bills better than landscape does.

I was born in Ohio. My paternal grandparents were from Mountain City [Tennessee] and at some point, they moved to Bristol. My Dad was born in Bristol. My maternal grandparents were from Pikeville, Pike County, Kentucky.

In the late 50’s I guess it was, maybe early 60’s, both sets of grandparents moved to Ohio to find work. Along therein somewhere after that, that’s when my parents met, so I was born in Ohio, but my grandparents eventually wanted to move back. My Mom and Dad wanted to move back here, so we moved back to Tennessee when I was seven. I have been here ever since.

My maternal grandpa worked several different factories. He had originally gone up to Chicago for a little while, he had gone a couple of different places, I think lived in Columbus for a while, but he ended up in a machining factory. They made fabricating machine parts and things like that in Orville. 

I consider myself to have been raised here. I don’t have a lot of memories of Ohio. I have little bits and pieces of that time, but the majority of my childhood that I remember has been from here.

I love the people here. I think that you just don’t find what we have here in so many places in the United States. I am not scared of people here. I feel like I can walk up to anybody and talk to them, and I am ok with that. Some situations in a lot of other places people are like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t approach that situation, you shouldn’t approach that person.’ But that’s not something that I ever feel here. 

People care about each other differently here. I can’t tell you how many times I have stopped along the side of the road to take pictures, and I’ve had 15 people stop and ask me if I was ok or if I needed help. The next car will come along, do you need help, are you ok, do, you need me to do anything for ya? You just don’t see that. I have broken down in cities before and had hundreds of cars pass by and not one person stop. 

Appalachians are extremely proud, and not in a bad, false way. Appalachian people are very proud in their culture, their heritage, their past. A lot of that was stripped somewhere along the way though. If you look back in history, a lot of people in the Appalachian area were poor, but they didn’t know they were poor, until somebody came in and told them they were poor and said, “Hey, you should have more stuff. You should have more shoes, you should have more clothes, you should have better cars.” When people started telling them that they didn’t have all this stuff, I think people started wondering, started to think, “Oh, well maybe they are right, maybe I should have more stuff.” I think that has had a negative impact on the culture around here.

I don’t mind if somebody from around here says I’m a hillbilly or calls me a hillbilly, but I don’t think I would like it if I were somewhere else and somebody called me a hillbilly. Most places, it seems, really see it as a negative connotation. 

Maybe it all started with the Beverly Hillbillies, I don’t know, that may have had something to do with it. When there was a big influx of people from the Appalachian region going north to find work, and the time that my grandparents went up there, I always called it the great southern migration. I don’t know what it was really called. But I think that a lot of them were not welcomed at all in a lot of places. People saw them very differently. People saw them as poor, uneducated.

The saddest times for me, were actually stories of hearing my family talk about some of the ways they were treated when they were other places away from here. 

I remember hearing stories about families who had brought a pig to Chicago. They didn’t know what to do with their pig, but they knew they needed their pig to feed their family, so they took it into their apartment and slaughtered the pig in the bathtub, and hung it up in the bathtub. That kind of thing happened a lot from the way that I have always heard the stories passed down. People would see that, and because they didn’t understand it, they would immediately make a lot of rash judgments. 

They talked different, they dressed different, they didn’t have a formal education maybe.

My dad was probably around middle school age, and you know that’s a tough age anyway. He was in Ohio, after his family had moved up from Bristol. One of his teachers would bring him to the front of the class, and tell him to pronounce certain words that we would say differently. 

The teacher would say, ‘say boil’, and he would say ‘boyl’, and ‘say oil’ and he would say ‘oyl’ and then everyone could laugh at this hillbilly that they had brought into their school system. I think that really kind of stuck with him his whole life. He would not do public speaking at all. If there is any type of situation where he was gonna have to get in front of people, my dad would never get in front of people and speak after that. I don’t think that he would have wanted to go on to college or do anything like that because {of} the humiliation that somebody would do that to somebody else and that humiliation was going to carry over, [and] make you feel like you’re an uneducated person. What would make you think that you could go on and get an education or do something when people are seeing you as their entertainment monkey or something?

Talking about Appalachian pride, and our accents and stuff, that is something I’ve tried really hard to instill with my own children. Not judging people based on the way that they talk, for starters. They really have no concept of judging people based on their looks, it just not something that’s ever occurred to them, but also not judging people on the way they talk. 

My son [is] going to be a movie director. He never says he ‘wants’ to be a movie director, he says he is ‘going to be a movie director’ when he grows up. He is pretty critical when he watches movies, and one of his biggest pet peeves is the Hollywood southern accent. 

Every movie he watches he’s like, ‘they just can’t get it right! Why can they not talk like us? Do they really think that is how we sound, because we don’t.’ He hates that, and he hates hearing someone saying App-a-lay-shian. Anytime he hears it, he is twelve, and oh, that eats at him. That is his two biggest pet peeves, a fake Hollywood southern accent and App-a-lay-shian. 

I am team Appal-at-cha all the way. I just don’t know why people feel the need to go on the pronunciation of the word from people that don’t live here, or have never lived here. ‘Oh, but I had App-a-lay-shian studies when I was in college at UC Berkeley.’ And so you learned all about us when you were at Berkeley? A three-hour credit class that you only showed up for half the time?

I feel like I had a really good childhood here. That is something that makes me kind of sad now, is that even in our area things have changed so much that my kids will never have the same childhood that I had. 

I have been really happy that my husband and I have been able to raise our family here. It’s not an easy place for a young family to make it, because we just don’t have the jobs and the work and things that a lot of larger places would have. But we have always found a way to make it, and to be able to do what we can do. I have been very happy that I’ve been able to start my own business. I have been able to work from home and homeschool my own kids.

I’ve been able to do some traveling and see different places. I love to travel. I love to see other places but I always want to come back home when I am done. I’m always glad to see the mountains. As soon as I can see the mountains, then I know I am home.“