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Stephen Shelesky: Coming Out Is a Lifelong Journey

Stephen Shelesky is a commercial outdoors, ski, and landscape photographer, and videographer based here in Jackson, Wyoming. Katie Lozancich Photo. 

With camera gear and camping essentials loaded up into the back of his car, photographer Stephen Shelesky left his home of Jackson, Wyoming for a dream four-month road trip throughout North America. His goal was simple: creating stunning images of the most beautiful landscapes he could find. He worked his way from the red rock formations in southwest Utah to the craggy peaks of Alberta, Canada. Along the way, he basked in pastel pink sunrises, circumnavigated crystal clear alpine lakes, and hiked alongside crashing waves, taking photos whenever he found a beautiful scene. He’d post the beautiful images to social media, quickly garnering likes and praise. From outside looking in, Shelesky appeared to be thriving. Living a photographer’s dream. Internally, that wasn’t the case.

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For his whole life, Shelesky had been running away from a part of himself. In many ways, he used the trip as a distraction, and it only made him feel worse. Finally, he couldn’t ignore the discontent any longer. One evening, while writing in his journal, he jotted down a few words he was terrified of ever admitting to himself: I am gay. It was the first time he ever sat with that statement. And while he didn’t feel ready to share it with the rest of the world, he finally acknowledged that it was something he had to come to terms with in order to be happy. No more running away. No more pretending to be something he wasn’t. No more denying who he was.

Two years later Shelesky came out. First to his friends, then his family, and then after a few months of processing and understanding the decision, Shelesky once again wrote the words “I am gay,” to his 50,000 followers on Instagram. The whole ordeal wasn’t easy, but once everything was said and done an insurmountable weight was lifted off his shoulders. As a photographer, this newfound freedom and identity excited him. Not only could he start living authentically, but he saw this as an opportunity to advocate for others in the LGBTQ+ community, especially in mountain towns like Jackson. Now Shelesky hopes to use his platform as an action sports and outdoor lifestyle photographer to encourage more inclusivity in the outdoor industry. 

As part of our Pride month series, we caught up with Shelesky to hear more about his coming out process, and how outdoor towns like Jackson Hole can better ally marginalized communities.

Shelesky is always eager to find a unique shot, like this one with Max Martin from a desert backcountry adventure in Utah. Stephen Shelesky photo.

Can you tell us more about your background?

Stephen Shelesky: I grew up in Northern Virginia. I got into photography in high school and fell in love with the medium because of this great teacher I had. When I first started out I was doing a very different kind of photography from what I’m doing now. It was more like portraits. But it wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Colorado Boulder that I started bringing my camera with me to the mountains. My friends Travis and Scott were really good skiers, and I loved taking photos of them. When Vail and Breckenridge started picking up my photos it planted the seed in my brain that I could potentially make a career from this.

Did you make it your goal to become an action sports photographer after college?

SS: Well, I really became attached to the mountains from my time spent snowboarding in college. My degree was originally in environmental science, but I was so interested in the ski industry and had this big goal of working in ski marketing, not just photography.

I ended up getting an internship with Vail Resorts, which turned into a marketing job. It wasn’t a good fit for me, so I moved on and ended up getting a job with Alterra and the Ikon Pass. 

How were you navigating your sexuality during this time?

SS: I went the full route of suppression and denial. I joined a fraternity and pursued things that would never associate me with being gay. I was just so scared to come to terms with it. I never wanted that reality to be mine.

Local snowboarder Randy Strand making the most of a stunning sunrise in the Jackson backcountry. Stephen Shelesky photo.

Was that taught to you?

SS: I think a lot of it came from the environment I grew up in. I always knew my mom and her family would be accepting, but I was skeptical about my dad. In the last few years though, he’s changed immensely and has become much more accepting. I was mostly worried about his parents, who were extremely conservative. I was actually really close to them, and I didn’t want to lose my relationship with them.

In college, I got through it because I was hyperstimulated: I snowboarded, joined a fraternity, partied, and poured myself into my studies. These were all forms of escapism. I found any excuse to not go back to the frat house and put on this show about liking girls. It just wears on you.

Did you use photography to escape?

SS: Yeah I actually stepped away from ski photography to pursue landscape work. I’d loved having the excuse to go far away and often by myself. I think I gravitated to being alone so I didn’t have to put on a show and lie about who I was. The two years following college I traveled as much as I could. In between working for Vail and Alterra, I’d take three-day weekends to travel to stunning viewpoints and built myself quite a portfolio. Those photos helped me grow a substantial social media following and got me connected with clients, affirming that I could pursue photography as a career.

What brought you out to Jackson?

SS: I always had this desire to live in a mountain town. I was based in Boulder for two years after graduation, and it didn’t feel like home. I ended up in Jackson because a fraternity brother was living here for a season, so I called him to see if I could crash at his place for three months. It was only supposed to be for three months, but I eventually started shooting again and it just snowballed.

I ended up connecting with local skiers Sophia Schwartz and Veronica Paulsen and photographed with them throughout the season. They invited me on a ski trip to Japan, which looking back was a major turning point in my career. I met filmmaker Susie Theis, skier Max Martin, and skier Jim Ryan.

Before he was an action sports photographer, Shelesky traveled the world photographing beautiful vistas like this one in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Stephen Shelesky photo.

What was so important about that Japan trip?

SS: It converted my style and showed me that I actually love working with people. I had this realization that I didn’t want to be alone anymore. It wasn’t a perfect trip, but it helped me cultivate relationships with athletes like Max. We ended up shooting together a lot the following winter. We basically became a team and pitched to all his sponsors. It taught me a lot. I ended up becoming a part of a big team for this film project In Plain Sight, which is something I’m working on this winter.

As you were pursuing these bigger projects, did it occur to you to come to terms with your sexuality?

SS: I think as I was putting down roots in Jackson, it hit me that I needed to come to terms with things so that I could actually be happy and form the community I’ve always wanted.

I came out to my friend Max in November. I came out to my family a week after. It was tough. Unfortunately, when you’re in this deep denial state you’re pretty angry with yourself. You tend to take it out on other people. Truthfully, it was an altercation with Max that drew me to come out. My actions were still wrong, but I needed to give them context.

I don’t think it gets any easier after that first step. It was really hard to tell my family, in fact, I didn’t tell them all in person. I actually wrote letters to a few people. That’s the part that people don’t get. It’s hard to say the words: I am gay. I struggled to say that in a closed room by myself. Coming out is the first step, but it’s an uphill battle from there. 

Can you unpack that a bit more?

SS: I think I stepped into it without really being ready to step into it. At that time it still wasn’t something I was okay with people knowing about me, so when you sit in this in-between it just feels uncomfortable. It crushed me socially. I felt like every time I met a new person I wanted this part of me to be known and I wasn’t ready for it. When you deny something like this, you don’t get to choose what will bring it to the surface.

It’s different for everyone. I certainly had it easier knowing that my family would still love me—because some people aren’t that fortunate. But I think what delayed the process was being in this mountain town. I was worried about being judged. It seems irrational now, but that’s how you think when you’re so scared.

I ended up putting out a big Instagram post this past April. It was a defining moment. I feel like when you first come out you’re in this tolerant phase. You know, there are thoughts like “I know this part of me exists, and I can’t change it. But I’m not proud of it yet.” That post was the first time I felt proud of myself, and I started to understand the meaning of Pride. That moment has allowed me to rebuild my identity and become a storyteller for stories that matter, and hopefully, I can tell the stories of other LGTBQ+ members of this community.

As an openly gay storyteller, Shelesky hopes to uplift and inspire other LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors. Katie Lozancich photo.

Were you worried about how you would be treated in Jackson?

SS: Jackson is an accepting community, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely an inclusive community. I didn’t see anyone like me here, which made things more intimidating. Even though there are other LGBTQ+ folks here, most aren’t outspoken about it. I felt like I had nobody to look up to in skiing, other than Gus Kenworthy and competition skiing is different from the freeride scene here. I think if you were a gay skier here people would use that to undermine you. It’s such a pissing match here, and you’re constantly trying to go bigger and bolder.

But if someone came out here as a gay skier I’d think they’d be incredibly badass.

I also had all these fears about what it would do for me professionally. Would brands not want to work with me? I found the opposite. For a gay person, it’s been so good to receive that positive reinforcement. That’s what encouraged me to be more of an advocate, so hopefully, other people see the mountains and ski industry as a place that welcomes and accepts them.

How can communities like Jackson step up for the LGBTQ+ community?

SS: A good first step would be organizing a Pride event that’s involved with skiing. It’s important that people like TGR choose to uplift these stories because someone locally could see it and feel less threatened. But if TGR included a gay skier in their films that would be massive.

I’d just love to see more gay people in positions at outdoor companies and ski companies. People don’t have to be crazy open about it, but I think having a gay person making marketing decisions will lead to more inclusivity in media. The same goes for black, indigenous, and people of color. You don’t see BIPOC in ski ads, largely because there aren’t BIPOC folks working for ski companies.

The outdoor industry just needs to celebrate this community. It’s not just including LGBTQ members to check a box, but showcasing a badass gay couple in marketing because that’s celebrating love. It’s beautiful and no different from someone else’s love. That’s why I love seeing these Pride celebrations at resorts like Telluride or Aspen because it’s a celebration.

Jim Ryan blasts through a stash of fresh snow. Stephen Shelesky photo.

What advice would you give to someone who’s going through the same experience?

SS: I think everyone’s situation is unique and different. Find a resource, even if it’s one person. If you have nobody try to find someone who’s outspoken about it and is willing to hear you and offer advice.

Ultimately though, I think it’s something that requires that really difficult first step. Originally it felt like my world would end if people found out I was gay. That’s what it felt like. I think that’s why people get so depressed. I don’t think anyone should feel intimidated here in Jackson in terms of acceptance. Yes, I believe that Jackson has a lot of room to grow in terms of being inclusive but I think most people’s fear that this community won’t accept them is irrational.

What honestly really helped me was meeting with a therapist. At least here in Jackson, they’re all LGBTQ+ friendly. People hate to take that step and seek professional help, but the way Wyoming has it set up makes it so affordable. It’s a sliding scale based on income, so for some people, they don’t have to pay anything at all. I think counseling can help people through the hardest of times.

People won’t care about your past self when you decide to come out. This is an opportunity to build the person you want to be. 

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