Life in the small town of Jodie, West Virginia, revolved around coal mining. Opportunities were scarce and young men like Ken Thomas were expected to get a job in the mines.
He remembers sitting in his 4th grade class, listening to the responses of classmates as their teacher asked them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most of the girls said housewife, while the boys agreed that they wanted to become coal truck drivers.
Thomas said he wanted to be an astronaut.
When he graduated high school, Thomas worked a short stint mining coal. He liked it so much he soon joined the Army, where he spent four years. After trying a number of professions, including radio broadcasting, he eventually got into construction safety, which he does currently in North Carolina.
“Because of where we were and the low income nature, we had schools that weren’t always great, teachers that weren’t always great,” said Thomas. “We did not have access to resources, libraries, learning opportunities that I think people might have elsewhere.”
The lack of educational opportunities led Thomas to embrace open access to knowledge, and he supports organizations that promote it like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Wikimedia Foundation.
“When I first got involved in the Internet and with Wikipedia, what I kept thinking about was myself when I was 7 or 8 years old and logging on and finding a resource like that, how huge that would have been and how transformative that could have been for me as a child,” he said.
He added, a “free education as a way to break what remains of our class system in the US, or an economic class system.”
For Thomas, Wikipedia is “the most important experiment going on right now.” He also calls it a mirror that reflects, “the best of us and the worst of us. If we can’t make it work, then maybe we’re not worthy of our technology.”
Thomas first began contributing to Wikimedia projects by way of Wikimedia Commons. His passion for photography was cultivated by combining it with his love for, as he describes it, “typical redneck pastimes,” such as fishing, hunting and kayaking, among other activities.
Thomas recalled a particular event that marked a “weird point in [his] evolution” from a casual hobbyist to passionate photographer.
“I was deer hunting one year, saw what I thought was a nice deer, and there was this flinch, do I go for the camera, do I go for the rifle?” he said. “You know, which am I going to do? If he steps out of there, the light’s perfect, and I got the 300 mm lens on… man it would be such a good photo.”
Thomas does sell prints of some of his amazing images through his personal website, including a very nice calendar, but he is committed to giving away his photographs for the public good. While most photos on Commons are licensed Creative Commons Share Alike, which allows re-use so long as the original photographer is credited and derivative works are licensed under the same terms, Thomas donates his photos to the public domain.
“What I have told people in the past is putting a photo on the web is an act of generosity,” he said. Emblazoned on the bottom of his userpage is the simple phrase: Give freely or don’t give.
“I don’t own the bird. I don’t own the light. I don’t own the tree branch that the bird was sitting on,” he said. “I take these pictures because I want people to see how beautiful these things are. Who am I to charge for that?”
(View more of Ken Thomas’s photos)
Story by Jordan Hu, Communications Intern, and Matthew Roth, Global Communications Manager
Reporting by Victor Grigas, Storyteller