Phillip Whitley is a visual artist, business owner and community advocate with an uncanny ability to make virtually every project he takes on a success.
Written by Cathy Mentzer
As an openly gay, biracial man in a conservative county, he does not take his success for granted. But the fact that he has been able to thrive without compromising his values is something that has defined his journey within the community he loves.
“I really am at such a loving, accepted space,” said Whitley. “My life here as an open gay man living life flamboyantly has been privileged. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know why that is, but I know there are many LGBTQ people here who have not had the same experience as me.”
The owner of MrPhab Photos, Whitley, 31, stays busy. In addition to his professional work, Whitley is on the leadership team of Chambersburg’s Rotary Club and is involved in several community groups, including serving on the boards of the Franklin County Coalition for Progress and Pride Franklin County, of which he is also vice chair.
“He loves community service and he loves Chambersburg,” said Craig Cordell, a former president of the Rotary Club of Chambersburg, which Whitley joined in 2017. “He has pitched himself into community service to a greater degree than any Rotarian I’ve ever met.”
His creativity and talent for organizing and motivating others to get involved were key in helping the first Gay Pride event in June 2018 and the second one held this summer a success, according to Pride Franklin County Chair Nathan Strayer. “He pours his time into it, not only helping with the planning of it but also getting volunteers, doing all the photography for it.” Strayer said.
Whitley is also in a happy long-term relationship. He has been with his partner, Preston Cook, for a decade.
“My life here as an open gay man living life flamboyantly has been privileged. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know why that is, but I know there are many LGBTQ people here who have not had the same experience as me.”
What could be behind his success? Friends say Whitley gets back what he gives out – happy, positive energy and a sincere concern for other people. “He’s just a very genuine person who truly cares about everyone,” said Strayer. “He has a personality that’s so warm and welcoming that people just want to be around him. I think that helps them see beyond the labels.”
His journey to this place of success and happiness, however, was not without challenges.
Adopted, Whitley grew up home-schooled in a religious household. When he was outed to his parents at 17 by a neighbor, he was told he would have to leave and make his own way.
Whitley left town and for several unsettled years, struggled to make it on his own. Eventually, friends convinced him to return to Chambersburg, where he began building a new life. Supporting himself working as a server and bartender at restaurants, Whitley took a leap of faith in 2017, when he officially launched his photography business.
A longtime amateur photographer, he had agreed to shoot a friend’s engagement pictures using a borrowed camera. When the friend shared the pictures on social media, they got a lot of attention.
“I had so many people messaging me on Facebook. I thought, ‘Well, you better get a camera, Phillip,’” he recalled. He borrowed some money to buy professional equipment and used the nickname his manager at the restaurant had given him – Mr. Phab – to launch a business.
“It was powerful. These girls had never seen representation of women who looked like them on such a large scale,”
Whitley, who is self-taught, does all kinds of photography, from weddings and portraits to work for websites and social media. “Things have been growing so quickly in the last three years, it’s been amazing,” he said. “I’m so grateful to be able to make a living out of doing something I love.”
As he gained notoriety, Whitley was also able to make art geared toward impacting change.
In 2018, he got the idea to take creative portraits of four women he grew up with for Black History Month. As the project got underway, it became clear that Whitley had tapped into something bigger.
The friends shared their portraits online and then “some kind of Internet magic happened,” Whitley said. “They put it on the Internet and the Internet went wild. I couldn’t believe it.”
The Franklin County Coalition for Progress began crowdfunding to get the photos printed on large-scale canvases and helped arrange for the photos to be used in an exhibition at Chambersburg’s Coyle Free Library to celebrate Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
“I feel like living my life with truth and honesty has shown you can still care about the community and you can be respected.”
More than 200 people attended the opening reception for the exhibition. Whitley still vividly recalls one of the women he photographed telling him at the reception how much it would have meant for her as a little girl to have seen such an exhibition.
“It was powerful. These girls had never seen representation of women who looked like them on such a large scale,” said Whitley. “That was the first community thing I had done with my camera. I have continued doing projects like that that focus on marginalized people.”
Whitley shot another series of photos for an exhibition in June 2019 for Gay Pride Month and worked that fall on a Down Syndrome Awareness photography exhibition for WellSpan Health. Another partnership, on behalf of the Healthy Communities Partnership, marked female firsts in Franklin County.
While he is an advocate, Whitley avoids entering the fray of traditional politics or activism. He does believe, however, that the mere act of being unapologetically himself helps break down barriers and dispel stereotypes about LGBTQ people and people of color.
“People don’t know a lot of marginalized people who are involved and care about the community,” he said. “You don’t have to be a cookie cutter. I feel like living my life with truth and honesty has shown you can still care about the community and you can be respected.”