In the summer of 2015, photographer Tommy Bruce went to stay with his friends Allison and Brian and their dogs, cats, and chickens at their home in Northern California for a few weeks. The three humans met online as members of the furry community—people who identify as anthropomorphized animals, which they see as representations of their inner selves and objects of sexual desire, portrayed often but not exclusively through costumes. The trio had been faving and reblogging one another’s photos and Tumblr posts since 2011, meeting periodically at the same furry conventions. (Allison and Brian also became a couple around that same time.) During his 2015 visit, Tommy photographed his friends’ daily lives at home and among the nearby redwood forests and rocky beaches. He also captured Allison’s process as she made him a fursuit, a costume representation of his furry alter ego, or “fursona”: a white-tailed deer.
“These photographs are about understanding our relationship with … well, nature is such stupid term,” says Tommy. “Humans are nature. We just deny it. It’s about considering other beings on this planet as equals, rather than subhuman.” Below, the photographer shares his journey to furriness, as well as why his fursona is an integral part of his identity.
I’ve always considered myself an indoor boy. I was born and raised in central Pennsylvania and started taking pictures at the age of 14, when a friend gave me a camera. I didn’t really consider myself an artist until that point in my life. I was never interested in sports, and I was very much interested in video games and the internet. I was social—I enjoyed interacting with people IRL, as they say—but online was where I really grew up. I found myself in a lot of different ways; I started taking pictures and decided that I was queer at the same time. A lot of awakenings piled on top of each other.
A fursona is an alternate self that exists in the communal fantasy of the furry community. It doesn’t have to have a specific form; it can be an idea that gets expressed through a fursuit, but also through illustrations, writing, and internet interactions. It’s an amorphous entity. A fursuit takes that virtual idea back into the corporeal world: it’s a costume that’s an embodiment of the character. There’s a sort of magic to it.
My fursona is Atmus, a white-tailed deer, which is Pennsylvania’s state animal. Deer are multifaceted: on the one hand, they’re elusive and calm, with majestic antlers, but in Pennsylvania people call them giant rats. They’re these clumsy, dumb things, and I was drawn to that dichotomy of grace and goofiness. I was always very anti competitive aggression, and hunting culture in Pennsylvania became a symbol of that. For me, to become a deer queers the relationships of the hunters to these animals.
I met Brian through Tumblr, back when I was first documenting my peers in the furry community. We started talking in 2011, as fans of each other’s work—he was running a furry art blog at the time—and met briefly at a convention. Later that same year, at the Midwest FurFest in Chicago, he, Allison, and I really bonded. I remember Allison drawing wolves on everyone’s arms and hands and chests, and us walking around feeling like a pack.
Their house in California borders a redwood forest, and when I stayed with them I would wake up baking in the sun in their Airstream trailer. The dogs would be milling about the house, and Allison and I would work on the fursuit in her studio until it was time to take them for a walk through the forest. Sometimes we would drive 20 minutes to the ocean. There was so much access to these sublime natural experiences.
Allison’s process is really intuitive. When she was designing my character she was looking at strict deer references—not just their anatomy but also how they move and operate. The length of the fur, the shape of the tail. She has this way of taking scraps of cardboard and construction paper and using them as organic growths and happy accidents. Allison’s style has been sort of canonized within the community; unlike other suit makers, she doesn’t take commissions, selling only completed costumes of her own design. She works from a constant stream of inspiration in her life and from animals, staying loose and reactive to the materials and the costumes. I imagine her as a real-life Snow White: all the birds land on her and chirp, telling her about their days.
Today, Allison, Brian, and I have a somewhat queer familial relationship. The way I understand new concepts of family is through the concept of vertical and horizontal identity. Vertical identity is what comes from your parents, like class, race, religion, and nationality. Horizontal identity is anything in you that’s different from your family. For me, that’s being a furry and being queer. It’s an experience that is vital to my being that I do not share with my parents. And I need a familial relationship in which I can relate to that horizontal identity. That’s what I have with Allison and Brian, where we can have a conversation about sex and sexuality—ideas that don’t fit into an average family unit but which have a more specific bond than regular friendship.
The furry identity is based on having a self-image that cannot exist in the real world. I may have a costume, but I’m not an actual cartoon deer. My character comes alive in commissioned artworks and in costume and in pictures of my costume, and these media are disseminated and circulated on the internet as well as interwoven into my everyday life. It’s through interaction with fiction that this identity is activated.
My relationship to this community is about a futuristic conception of self and desire: a dismantling of boundaries that don’t work and don’t make sense. Literal self-portraiture didn’t come into the work until I felt like I had an avatar to represent myself. Atmus is completely my mirror. Photos of him are in my Tinder profile! If you don’t love him, you don’t get me. It’s become integral to the way I interact with the world as an artist, in my identity, and in my relationships. These days I wear my furriness on my sleeve.