The power of perspective: How one unlikely optimist went from homeless to photographing the Alaskan frontier

The Rahn Thomas that commented on our Facebook page is different than the one in the picture he posted of himself in our “Half Full” tee, homeless and spending another uncertain night in a shelter. These days, Rahn lives in Alaska and works as a commercial fisherman. He calls it, “living the dream.”

But he’s still the same, unlikely optimist. Despite spending years between prison and homelessness, Rahn saw even the biggest obstacles as simple roadblocks, leading him to new routes and possibilities with every unexpected turn. It’s the kind of outlook you have to choose when life seems to do a lot of the choosing for you.

Rahn saw even the biggest obstacles as simple roadblocks, leading him to new routes and possibilities with every unexpected turn.

He got to thinking, what would his life be like if he wasn’t in a cell? A simple question, inspiring his decade-long journey to overcoming his past, finding optimism, and changing the course of his life.

Photo: Rahn Thomas | Helicopter ride with Marathon Helicopters in Seward, Alaska

During a recent chat, Rahn filled us in on his move to the Alaskan frontier, mentioned one t-shirt that changed it all, and offered us his down-to-earth reflections on the power of a positive mindset.

How did you end up in Alaska? What was your journey like?

Rahn Thomas: I grew up in California and, as I got older, I realized that there was more to life than just the same place and the same people. I saw some shows on Alaska and I thought, “Oh, that seems like the place for me.” I like being out in nature and I like hard work.

I came up here in 2014. I stuck out my thumb and told the first people who picked me up that I was looking for a port with big boats.

I ended up in Seward, which I had never heard of in my life. It’s the gem of Alaska. You’ve got beautiful mountains right in front of and behind you. You’ve got great fishing and cruise ships that come in once or twice a day. It’s a really amazing place, and I just happened to come by it by chance.

Photo: Rahn Thomas | Helicopter ride in Godwin Glacier

And you’re a photographer, too?

RT: I work for Fresco News as a middle person for the local news agency. They give me assignments and they use my photos and videos to cover this and that. When they use my stuff, the whole state sees it.

Speaking of photography, we’ve gotta talk about that picture you left on our page. What was it about that t-shirt that stuck with you?

RT: I was given that shirt in 2010. It had a glass on it that’s “Half-full.” I’d never heard of Life is Good before, but I really enjoyed the shirt and liked the material. I remember looking at the tag. I was like, “Oh, Life is Good. That’s nice. Life is good.” I got back in touch with Life is Good on Facebook around the time I came to Alaska. I really enjoy the way you see things. It’s the way life should be.

We love hearing that, but we know it’s hard to be told, “Just stay positive.” How do you find the good, even at the end of those not-so-good days?

RT: It’s all about the way you think. Start saying, “Good morning” to people and it changes your mood and the way you think about the day. Your thoughts are a little bit happier. Life is good because you did wake up, you are walking around, and there are good things to focus on. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my life, and, at some point, I realized that if I don’t like what’s happening, I can change it. If I’m not happy about myself, I can change that.

Photo: Rahn Thomas | End of salmon season in Bristol Bay, standing on the Jimmy Jeff

I realized that if I don’t like what’s happening, I can change it. If I’m not happy about myself, I can change that.

You’re right. Doing little things to put yourself in the right mindset can really affect your day and have a big impact on the quality of your life. What taught you to stay positive?

RT: I grew up in a small town and went down the wrong track for quite a few years. It started in high school and continued into my 20s and a little bit of my 30s. I got into trouble with the law. All I knew was getting locked up—the back and forth. I was always thinking, “If I wasn’t locked up, I would be out doing this and that.”

It’s been over a decade since all that. I’m out now and I’m exploring a new town in Alaska. All those nights wishing I was out doing anything as long as I was free…it gives me an appreciation for the hard days that do come up here. Alaska’s not always easy. It can be freezing cold in the winter. Things can be pretty rough.

After you’ve been to the bottom, you can appreciate all these little things more. Right now, I’m watching this boat speed into the harbor and it’s just amazing that I can sit here on a sunny day and see the snowcapped mountains right in front of me and the fisherman with his waders and fishing pole. Things can be a lot worse than today.

Alaska’s not always easy. It can be freezing cold in the winter. Things can be pretty rough. After you’ve been to the bottom, you can appreciate all these little things more.

Photo: Rahn Thomas | Little rockfish caught in Ketchikan, Alaska

You have such an amazing ability to appreciate the simple, incredible things around you. What do you hope people feel when they read your story?

RT: I want to inspire others to get out of their shell and to experience life. It doesn’t have to be Alaska, it can be Montana—wherever. Sometimes we need to get up and do something different than what we do every day. Life is too short.

Before I moved here, I knew I was going to experience a new adventure…something great. I thought it was going to be really cool, but it’s totally surpassed all that. I’ve been out to Dutch Harbor and these islands that reach out towards Russia, and up to Kodiak and Ketchikan. I lived in Fairbanks in the winter and I’ve seen the Aurora Borealis, and it’s been so much more than I ever thought life could be like. Before all of this, I thought it would be great to go and try something new. But this is so much more than that. Life has a lot to show and teach you. You just have to give it a chance.