Looking Back to Pay it Forward
Bob Sadler is a fine art photographer, ImageMakers member, and a Board Member for the Center of Photographic Art in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. He is a Vietnam Veteran and the creator of “Inherent Worth and Dignity,” a photo project that evokes empathy through authentic and deeply personal photos of people who are homeless. The resulting photos raise money for homeless shelters across the US.
“Most photographers who take photos of the homeless make them look as bad as possible to make their work look more dramatic — but that’s not what I do.”—Bob Sadler
When was your first encounter with photography? I was 12 years old, and I received a Brownie Hawkeye. I didn’t get serious about photography until I was serving in Vietnam. I wasn’t interested in shooting the war, but I was suddenly in a new place — South Asia.
“Even my first roll of film was just spectacular. I knew very little about what I was doing. I held medium format slides up to the sun because they didn't fit in projectors.”
After six months of combat duty, I was given a week of rest and recuperation in the Philippines staying with the Hubble family. Serendipitously, William Hubble was a freelance photographer covering Asia. I got a free one-on-one workshop.
How did this inform your photography later on? William gave me a lot of confidence and drive to treat photography as art. I ran into William a second time twenty years later, in Hartford, Connecticut. Two guys were hanging a banner for an exhibit: The Look of Connecticut by photographer William Hubble. Again, he looked at my work and made great suggestions. He reignited my passion for photography. I never saw photography as a way to make a living...every story [of the photographer trying to make it] I saw was suffering. So how did you professionalize yourself as a photographer and find your style? I attended Santa Fe workshops in New Mexico. The immersion is what's important. It’s 10-12 hours a day you could never learn in a classroom. I found aspiration as I watched the development of those around me.
When did you feel ready to place your work in exhibits? Friends and family encouraged me to submit to the Aetna’s “Vietnam Veterans and Art Exhibit” so I had prints made and framed. There were painters, photographers, poets, songwriters — all the arts. Then I submitted to the Connecticut State Fair exhibit and won second place. The difficulty is not submitting everywhere. Now, I look for competitions with good credentials.
What was some of the best critical feedback you received early on? Color control. Learning why people were relating so strongly to the colors. That’s where I developed my monochromatic eye. I like one color, but with different values and shades. What I liked turned out to be classically “right”. Then I studied it, read about color, what’s complementary, how many colors to have in a scene. Black and white turned out to be about composition; negative space, the zone system.
What photographers do you look to for inspiration? From the beginning, I loved the Monterey Legacy Photographers. Ed Weston is really the person who made photography an art. I didn’t know anything about the West Coast but I loved LensCulture magazine, Wynn and Edna Bullock, The Depression photos by Dorothea Lange, and Ansel Adams.
There was an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in DC by Yousuf Karsh, and that just completely blew me away. It was all about the hands and face. It was frightening because you have to work with people intensely. Whatever you’re feeling is going to show up in the print.
“Imitation is worth doing. You learn the craft, and then the camera and craft becomes second nature. Ultimately, you'll break into what you’re going to do.”
What were you doing outside photography? I worked 10 years in community organizing. My job was to understand why communities were failing, what was threatened, and figure out a way to stave off the problem, reverse the trends, and get the community back on track.
If you get to the heart of that, it’s walking into a very large community, a group that feels threatened and victimized..and then it’s reenergizing them, helping them recognize their own power...it’s reshaping movements among people. That was a skill I developed that I brought to corporate world in Silicon Valley —I was fascinated, and turned it into a career. I coach executives who are great technically but not great with people. I get the executives to see what people look like.
“I bring out the best of them in an authentic way, understanding their story and capturing that. Whether I'm working at work or on my photography, it's the same thing.”
How did you get the idea for your project, “Inherent Worth and Dignity”? I belong to a Universal Unitarian church that's part of a homeless program which takes a few nights a month and offers the church to homeless people as a place to sleep. We were going to do a fundraiser and we wanted to have photos of the people we’re serving. I was hesitant at first because I’m not a portrait photographer. But then I realized how easy [the homeless people we were serving] were to talk with, so I asked if I could take their photos.
It took some time. I didn't know how to shoot people, so I did what I do all week and just talked to them and kept shooting. Then, I asked them if I could take their photos again, but this time, as the most famous people in the world. When I went home and processed the photos, they were exactly what I wanted them to look like.
I gave them 8x10 prints after. They had never seen a photos like that of themselves. And when others saw these wonderful faces, it was unbelievable.
“The photos were not what was expected either...these are normal people in normal circumstances, and they make me feel empathy in a way I’ve never seen.”
Then someone suggested I do an exhibit because my work was important to photography. They were compared to one of my inspiration’s (Dorothea Lange) photos — her Depression photos, minus the destitution.
How did you decide to present the photos to the public? Once people saw the portraits, they wanted the stories. I got a volunteer to write stories, Cassidy Hausmann Mason. And when people heard the stories, they wanted to see the men. I got another volunteer, Timothy Barrett, a digital media specialist, to record the men telling their own stories. He edited the videos down to three minutes and made them available through augmented reality. Viewers could point their devices at the portraits on the walls of the exhibit and the men would come alive in the frame and tell their own stories.
Cassidy moved on to college, so I do the writing myself now. Timothy became a homeless advocate and became a City Council Member in Monterey.
How did your project scale, or grow larger than your local community? It was all a little bit of this and that...a “sanity check” with ImageMakers, and they confirmed the photos were, in fact, beautiful. They bust up the stereotype of hopelessness and shift the mood from sympathy to empathy.
I took the project to the homeless group, one asked to speak to a rotary group, then all the rotary groups...city councils...they wanted to know the stories of these men. I turned it into an educational exhibit. Then took it to Art Intersection in Gilbert, Arizona and more galleries in public spaces.
Then the Weston Gallery asked me to put my photos next to Karsh’s for a Sadler/Karsh exhibit. Visitors would ascribe fame to my subjects, who were sometimes in the room. They’d go introduce themselves.
"In this instance, imitation became equal collaboration and a channel for creativity and storytelling.”
Where is “Inherent Worth and Dignity” currently? I’ve taken 150 portraits since 2011. It took me a long time to build trust enough to work with homeless women, now I'm working on their stories. We’ve helped raise enough money to fund homeless programs in the area when federal funding was cut off.
I’ve joined forces with other photographers around the world to do the same in a Facebook group “unsheltered group”. We’re building an audience and contributors from around the world.
How does photography inform your sense of community? First off...I wanted to do something for others, but didn’t know how to help. I made contributions, but I didn’t understand how they were benefiting the situation locally. By making connections, I feel like I can contribute much more to the way we see homeless and the way we contribute in general.
“Giving to organizations that can provide holistic help gave meaning to my photography in a way that no other photos could.”
I can do other types of fine art photography, but this is the work that gives social impact, and that's what I should've done when I first picked up a camera.
What do you hope for those who may have an interest in photography but aren’t confident about pursuing it (as a hobby or career)? Pursuing photography as a career is going to be hard, unless you like commercial work. As a tool for fulfillment, it’s one you can learn almost everything easily, and little bits at a time, and you can occasionally go for an immersion program (workshop); get your work out to all your friends and family. You can have your own SmugMug gallery electronically. It’s so efficient to play with the arts without having a bunch of expensive equipment.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to use their photography for community? Volunteer at a non-profit to be their photographer. Pick what you care most about. Every human being should have a portrait, who should you give one to?
Learn more about the impact of Bob’s project here.
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Dec 24, 2019 · 5 min read