Chicago-based photographer Kevin Serna photographs ultrarunner Coree Woltering and captures the essence of an accomplished man who has endured countless physical and emotional challenges throughout his running career. The athlete, now sponsored by The NorthFace, never saw people who looked like him while growing up and has become a champion for diversity, hoping to lead the way for others like him.
Kevin’s portraits of Coree Woltering were commissioned by Runner’s World for a story focused on the ultrarunner’s career and experiences as a gay black man in the industry. In the story for Runner’s World, Coree talks about the challenges he’s faced relating how he delayed his coming out for fear of not getting sponsored, and how he makes a conscious effort to seem calm when he’s having a bad day to avoid the “angry black man” trope.
Amy Wolff, The Director of Photography for Popular Mechanics, Bicycling and Runner’s World, reached out to Kevin and asked if he would be interested in photographing it for them. They had never been in touch before this project, however, Kevin was familiar with her and had heard interviews where she spoke about her experience as both an editor and photographer.
I had been following her because she has given some great interviews through various outlets about working in the industry. I was already familiar with and appreciative of her insights!
Kevin’s editorial experience includes projects for T Magazine, OUT, and Monocle. Throughout his work, he uses portraiture to visually tell the story of his subjects’ life experiences and look at who they are as people.
I think Amy was drawn to my aesthetic and experience in telling stories around identity. This story was about Coree’s triumphs as an ultrarunner and how he has persevered in his career as a gay black man, so I wanted to create some portraits that walked a visual line of feeling active but also reflective.
Coree lives in Ottawa, IL, and frequents the local trails, including I&M Canal State Trail where the images were taken. The subject’s connection to the area and the familiarity of the location made it the perfect spot for Kevin to photograph Coree in a natural setting.
Instead of locating the perfect vista or space, I prefer to find a location that the subject is tied to in some way. In my experience, this helps the subject to feel more at ease and creates a final product that has the most sense of authenticity to it.
The vast trail gave Kevin lots of opportunities for variety in backdrops to ensure he was prepared, he gave himself two hours to scout the area for potential spots prior to the shoot. However, the shoot would be at sunrise, so this meant he ended up scouting locations in the dark.
This trail was a pretty big place, so it took some time to find all the best places to capture Coree. I gave myself a total of two hours to scout prior to our start time, but I was traversing this vast area and trying to visualize what I thought would look visually appealing while in close to complete darkness.
Kevin’s portraits of Coree capture his likeness and demeanor among lush trails and the serenity of nature. The soft, warm natural light also gives the images (and the subject) a sense of contemplation.
My favorite part is getting to know the subject and their story and then finding ways to express that story through images creatively. I’m currently building up a portfolio in the genre of athletics, so it was a joy to explore more dynamic posing with Coree.
Coree has seen some positive changes in the industry in recent years as brands like Patagonia, REI and The North Face have made efforts to promote more diversity, but he’s still an anomaly in a largely white (and heterosexual) industry.