Thomas Sanders is a photographer who shoots for a wide variety of clients, from Esquire magazine to senior living communities. A professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Sanders is also the author of two photography books, “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII” was published by Welcome Books in 2010.
As the winner of the 2010 Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year Award for Editor’s Choice Nonfiction as well as a selection of The History Book Club and The Military Book Club, this collection of portraits was called “meticulously rendered and brilliantly lit” by the Chicago Tribune. In 2020, Sanders published his second book, “Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices.”
Topics of Discussion:
- Overview on my journey of doing films and photo shoots for senior living companies
- How to represent seniors in marketing: Some companies want realistic residents and some want seniors that are younger than their resident age demographic
- Photos and films for baby boomers are going to become more modern and hip, how do boomers want to be perceived?
- How to pick senior stock photos?
- A few tips on how employees can take good social media photos of residents
SLP Senior Living Photography: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tom-sanders-b372b1139/
Senior Stock Photos: https://seniorstockphotos.com/
Thomas Sanders is a photographer specializing in capturing photos of older adults. He’s published books – photography, celebrating our seniors, and he’s also an executive speaker on the topic. So Tom, thank you so much for being with me today on Boomer Living, and I’m always looking to learn more about the senior living industry from a new perspective and yours is one that I don’t know much about. So I’m eager to learn more from your experience. So welcome.
Well, thank you so much.
Can you give us a background on your career journey? How did you first get interested in photography and how did you make it into a career? When and why did you choose to focus and seniors as your specialty?
I could really start with my journey. So I had this coffee table book published with random house and it’s called “The Last Good War, The Faces and Voices of World War II.” And that was published when I was 25 years old. So I’m now 36. So it’s been out for about 11 years. But I had this college assignment to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in California, and I had this assignment just to photograph, it was like a portrait assignment and I went to a senior living community that was literally next door to where I was living. And I just went in there and said, “Do you have any interesting people to photograph?” And they said, “We have this World War II, army ranger hero” I thought that’d be really interesting. So it’s not like I was intentionally trying to photograph, you know seniors, I was just trying to find an interesting story for my portrait assignment for college. So I ended up meeting this world war II veteran. He was 91. And one of the first things that impressed me is that he went skydiving at the age of 90 years old, which is obviously pretty crazy. I don’t, I’m in my mid thirties. I don’t want to go skydive and, right? Maybe I will at some point, we’ll see. So that immediately impressed me. But he told me this really dramatic war story and he showed me this big wound on his stomach and on his thigh. And while in battle in Italy, He was fighting in battle and he watched his company commander trigger an S-mine and he was killed instantly. And then Randall triggered an S-mine himself. And an S-mine is stands for a shrapnel, mine it’s full of bullets and metal in it. When it’s triggered it flies in a thousand different directions. And when Randall triggered his S-mine Um, it hit him in his guts and his leg. This is really graphic, but his, his intestines started coming out of his stomach and he took his canteen belt and he, and he took his canteen and wrapped it around his stomach, and he continued fighting. And I just thought, “Holy cow”, here I am this 21 year old in college and when Randall was fighting in world war II, he was the same age as me trying to live and here I am in college, having this easy life really stressing about, college students, I think just, don’t not that they’re all stressful, but I, and I’m also a professor in photography. So I work with students all the time. I think they worry about the small things in life that really aren’t that big of a deal. And so my grandfather was in World War II and so it’s his brother who, my grandfather, my great uncle. He died in the battle of the bulge. And so I decided that with my grandfather, not talking a lot about his World War II experiences and hearing this World War II veteran story that I was going to try and travel the country and photograph World War II veterans and get a book published. And this was my ambitious goal as a, 21 year old in college. And so I, after school, I moved down to LA. And this company called Belmont Village, Senior Living discovered my project and I teamed up with them just to photograph some veterans living in their Hollywood community and it ended up being a huge success. So every photo shoot that I do with Belmont Village, one of my longest clients is that we do a veterans gallery. And then, well I do the photo shoot, and then we do a permanent gallery opening about a month later, and there’s usually a lot of TV news, media hits, even in big markets. We generally get Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville. The TV usually shows up for these gallery openings or photo shoots, which is pretty interesting. But anyways they sent me around the country just a few years after getting out of college to photograph all these veterans, living in the communities. And I had enough material to, to pitch a book and then I was able to to get it published, you know, write in my mid twenties. And that’s what really launched me into working within the senior living sect. Now I will say, and I’ll stop in a second, of course, while working with seniors, I was also building up my celebrity photography career living in LA. And I got to photograph, actual editorial magazine assignments, not paparazzi stuff, photographing Nicole Kidman and Shirley Siron Max Von Sido, some pretty famous celebrities. But that to go out to get in that industry of shooting celebrities, shooting, movie posters and editorial and fashion. It’s just so competitive. So when I turned about 31 years old, I was already doing some work doing lifestyle films and photo shoots force and, creative projects for senior living companies. I just said, I’m just going to full on commit to only doing films and photo shoots for, healthcare, um, senior living pharmaceutical companies.
That’s great. That’s great. Congratulations, it sounds like a very exciting journey starting in your twenties and what a a blessing to be in this industry, serving the older adults. So now how do you make sure senior living communities are accurately represented in their marketing? Because I’m sure some companies want photos of realistic residents while others may want photos of seniors younger than the resident age demographic.
That’s a great question. So most of the time senior living companies want to do a photo shoot or film for them, they want to show their actual, real, authentic residents. And usually that involves, we try and do a casting ahead of time because we want to find these really interesting seniors to showcase in both photos and films, and that’s just communicating, with corporate headquarters and then the local, and then just, directly with the communities in terms of finding those people. And there’s fantastic stories. I did this one project, a photo doing a centenarian calendar. I got to travel around the country. I photographed one lady who was 111 years old in Chicago. And she started writing books when she was 70 years old. And she wrote 12 books from the age of 70 to 112, which is pretty cool when you have 40 more years of life. You know she wasn’t, you know a freak of nature in some ways that she was able to do that. And I think she, when she passed away, she still very much had her wits around, her wits and was, you know still very with it. So one thing that I think senior living communities need to do more of is, I hate to use the word capitalized, but really SHOWCASE these interesting seniors that are living within the communities. I always use this example when I first started working with a client and how I want them to start thinking, it’s like, “What if there’s a retired astronomy professor and they have a telescope, and they have to move out of their home and they don’t have a spot to put their telescope to look at the stars at night?”, or something like that. And that isn’t, I still haven’t found a resident like that. But that is an interesting story in itself. Finding just these intriguing people and telling a story about them. Now, there are some companies that like to use stock photography and don’t want to use real residents. That could be a budget issue. It could just be how they like to work. So I also have a company called SeniorStockPhotos.com that caters to those companies that only want to use younger, kind of younger, photos of residents. But I also have very realistic photos of residents as well on my website. And one thing I do want to mention is that I think we all want to see ourselves as younger, for the most part. I think people are always nostalgic. Gosh, if I was only 30 years old or something like that, but I even think, and I’ve heard senior say this, if I have a gallery showing at an exhibition and the resident walks up to their photo and they see it hanging on the wall and they say, “Do I look that old?” and it’s mind blowing cause it’s yeah, “You’re 90 years old, you are old”, but they still don’t want to think of themselves as old. So I think some companies like to, try and represent their residents, in a younger mindset as well.
Depending on the, the folks that you’re photographing, how they want to be perceived and so forth. So that brings me to the next question. When you’re photographing baby boomer parents or grandparents, how do they want to be perceived? Do you think, their perception of themselves say anything about the characteristics of their generation?
My parents are baby boomers and I do think that the marketing is going to change as, in terms of how baby boomers are perceived, perceived as more of them move into senior living communities. And I think they do want to be perceived as, being much younger and they don’t want to be perceived as how their parents are with within the industry, not to say that there were all hippies that went to Woodstock. But it’s a very much wilder generation than what their parents went through. And so I think that it’s actually interesting through my stock site I have a baby boomer section and I do perceive them as being more wild and interesting. And I have this seven year old who he told me he does a hundred pushups a day and a hundred sit-ups and does all this stretching and he’s has his shirt off and he’s lifting weights and he has these kind of tight denim jeans on. He looks very hip, and I do think they, that boomers do need to be represented and just from you know, there nastalgic experiences, you know they don’t want to be perceived as old. And I really don’t think even their parents wouldn’t be perceived as, as old as well. Does that answer your question?
So your two photography books are about the World War II and the Vietnam war. Now, why did you choose to make wars the topics of your books, and what did creating the books teach you about older generations?
Hmm, that’s a good question. I mean the, I got into creating two war documentary photography books, mainly because of that college assignment that stemmed, and from me wanting to just travel the country and photograph World War II veterans. The second book is on the Vietnam war, is just a follow-up because I just, and obviously there’s the Korean war as well, “The Forgotten War” they call it, just because I was so surprised that the Vietnam veterans didn’t come back as heroes and being, when I was in my mid twenties I was kinda like, “I just don’t get it.” You know, here’s all these World War II veterans are heroes, why aren’t the Vietnam veteran heroes? And so I wanted to create a book that honored the Vietnam veterans. So it’s just really a followup to the first book. I will say that in the Vietnam war veteran book, it’s all my modern Vietnam war, veteran portraits. There’s also war relics in there and there’s also Vietnamese immigrants in there. And then I have a few conscientious objectors as well. There’s this guy named David Harris, who was married to Joan Baez, who I photographed and interviewed, and he spent five years in jail for not going into the Vietnam war. The second book is also this kind of followup, how I wish I would have done the first book. It had some things I left out. And I think in terms of learning from the world war II veterans and the Vietnam veterans, I think it’s just about preserving history. I think it’s about creating a greater appreciation for our veterans. I don’t think it matters if you’re Democrat or Republican or somewhere in the middle, we should always be thankful of our veterans. It’s about also just preserving history in the sense for, later generations for millennials and even more recent generations. When I was in grad school, I had this art history professor and he said, “Why is your book important” or why I didn’t have a book yet? “Why is your Vietnam veteran project important?” Because I also worked on this Vietnam war project in grad school. He said “There’s movies and songs, there’s other books. Why is this different?” And I didn’t know it was gonna be a book yet. And it took me a whole year to figure it out. But the thing is, we have to continue to tell history’s story as time goes on. So even though there have been books already on Vietnam, this is a new perspective that hopefully reaches a new audience.
You made many good points. After our conversation, I love to see those books, if you can send me links to them, that’d be great.
How can a company, let’s say pick up senior stock photos for their marketing website and make sure that they are accurately representing their community? How should a senior living company choose between using stock photos and photos that are actual residents in their marketing?
I’ll tell you this. Some companies, I have some company, I have a few senior living clients and they want nothing to do with stock photography. They want their authentic real residents. And I have other clients that are mainly using stock photos and it’s really a budget issue for the most part or budget challenge. So, I’ll tell you, and I’ll be, I’m pretty honest and when I lecture, um, lecture with the Savannah College of Art Design and Photography, and I teach a photography business class, I’m very open about the money conversation. Like I’ll tell you like the bare minimum for me to do a photo shoot or essentially do a photo shoot, at a senior living community, and then filming goes up from there, it’s probably 6,000 or 7,000 bucks. And that includes my day, day rate, assisting equipment but are you really goes up from there? And so some companies don’t want to pay that much. Some companies don’t have it in their budget and so they decide to do stock photography. And there aren’t great stock photos out there. You just have to sift through them. The other thing is some companies use cheap stock photos, they use free stock photos. And when they do that, which a lot of companies do, we’re seeing a lot of the same senior stock photos on competitor’s websites. So, the benefit of paying for a photo shoot or film at a community is that, the senior living companies get authentic imagery.
For any employees of senior living communities out there, do you have any tips on how they can take good photos of their residents for social media?
Yeah, I do. So, um, actually I’ve done some executive speaking for some companies to their sales and marketing teams on how to take good photos of their residents. A big tip is casting. I know it sounds silly, but if you see a senior resident walking around the community and they have some fantastic outfit on you’re going to capture them. But I’ve seen companies post on social media, photos of residents with, like food on their shirt, and it looks sloppy and that, and maybe they’re a lovely senior, but you don’t want bad photos representing your company. And so one big tip is if you’d stick them next to a window, turn them towards the window, gets a nice window lighting. That’s a great thing to do. And a lot of senior living communities, there’s these long hallways that don’t have a lot of windows. It’s a lot of overhead ceiling light. And that overhead ceiling light adds these shadows in the eyes. And I always tell my students that’s, that’s “Oh, you can use that tool sometimes.” There’s a famous Dorothea Lange portrait, She’s a Depression-era photographer. She has these famous photos of photographing the migrant mother. She shoots some, she shoots some of the photos at 12 o’clock and the, and she has her hands on her head and there’s these deep shadows on their eyes and it’s just not attractive. It brings out the wrinkles and just not complementary of the face. We see a lot of photos like that in terms of that sunken shadow eye lighting in senior living companies because of how they’re all designed. So usually, try and get that senior next to looking out the window and get them next to, nice window lighting having turned towards the window or just get them outside.
Yeah. Yeah. Natural lighting is, it’s the best.
Yeah. And it’s the easiest tool. Now, one other thing I don’t think people take advantage enough is the, is the flash on the phone. If you are in a dark area of a senior living community and you are’nt near a window and you have to be spontaneous, just turn that flash on and pop it with them. And that will, you know when you use your flash that adds like a really wonderful kind of party energy you could say in spontaneity. So that’s something else that companies can use. And like I was saying, you really want to make sure the clothing is nice. Also you can ask, so in terms of dining, right? So if a senior living community wants to show off their dining and their entrees to the night, it’s something that’s really impressive. Ask the chef to create a really beautiful plate. And the chefs love doing this because it’s an opportunity for them to really show off their skills so they can prop style a really beautiful plate of food. And, and usually when you shoot that food, just try and shoot it from up above. I’m not saying that’s normally how you do it but it’s one way, if you can shoot it from up above a tight shot, you can get a nice image that way. And I’m trying to think what else, those are two big tips. And I have a few more that I can’t think of right now. I like give an hour lecture on doing this but anyways, those are two good tips that I think should help.
Yeah. Yeah. And you know what, and it’s readily available. You don’t have to spend a whole lot when, if you’re, you have access to a window, lighting on your phone, a hallway that’s lit up. So I think that’s wonderful now.
I did this film on this painter for MBK Senior Living a few years ago and it ended up, and it’s like a short three minute, social minute. Excuse me. So a few years ago, I did a film for MBK Senior Living on this 90 year old, that’s going blind and she’s this really fantastic, amazing painter. And she’s just vivacious and outgoing. And it’s these residents that, you know, it’s the really out, not to say that there aren’t the not to say that not all the residents are outgoing, but we can really showcase these really outgoing, interesting residents on social media. You can get good photo of them or showing their artwork, or, maybe they’re retired baseball player or whatever, try and get them with their stuff and that helps tell the story as well. So using props from their life and taking a photo also helps create a better photo.
It kind of reminds me, when your kids graduate from high school, you do something special for their senior graduation, with all the activities, whether it’s props or clothing and all the clubs, my golly, there ought to be the same, if not more for the seniors who, are at the senior living community. So that’s a wonderful idea. What do you think is your biggest strength that enables you to have a unique, impactful effect on older adults? Maybe something that’s not known about you?
I think my strength in terms of photographing seniors, and especially older seniors, is that I can work. When I was 21 years old, I was starting to photograph World War II veterans that had dementia or Alzheimer’s. And so I do films and photo-shoots on residents that have cognitive and physical challenges, but you never see it in the photo, or in the film. So my big talent is being very sensitive and taking my time of working with seniors. I know that if I’m going to a community, I need to bring in a really respect, respectable crew. Or, I need to be very careful with my equipment that the residents aren’t going to trip over it. I bring in small crews. So I’m very experienced in doing films and photo shoots for senior living companies. I’m in my mid thirties, it’s not like I’ve experienced as much life as these as the seniors but I still have a pretty deep innate understanding and on longevity and aging well and their sensitivities. And I’ve done made a lot of films on memory care and dementia. And so I think that most photographers and filmmakers do not have the background , uh, that I’ve experienced in my career so far.
So that is an advantage that you had earlier on in your twenties. So that’s great. Now, why do you personally find it rewarding to serve the aging population?
Yeah, I find it rewarding to work with the seniors because, uh I do feel like it is giving back. It’s not easy to photograph seniors. Like I was saying before sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s not. I once did a photo series for a company on couples that have been married for over 50 years. And I, and one of the couples both had dementia, but in the image, you see them embracing each other and it, and there, and it’s wow, maybe they don’t know who they are anymore. They still they’re still like this deep love and respect for each other in the photo. Um, and you don’t know that, the viewer never know that. And so I think that it’s just feels like it’s giving back it’s unique. There’s really hardly few other there’s very, maybe a few other photographers and filmmakers that specialize in, in aging. So it’s pretty unique and I get to hear great stories, all the time. I also think that helps me reflect on my own aging process. One thing I think about is, if I get upset about something, right now in my current life, “Am I going to be angry about it when I’m 85 years old? Am I even going to remember?” I’m not”. So in current situations where I might get stressful or it might be unhappy, I have to think, “Is this really that big of a deal? Am I going to remember this later in life when I’m old and, and I won’t, not because I’ll, I’m going to forget because it’s not that important.” And so that’s a unique perspective I have as well.
I think I can relate to that and I’m glad that you brought that up. A lot of times whatever place that we’re currently in and if only we would project ahead the crisis or the frustration that you have right now, how was it relative to, 20 years later? What impact would that have. I’m in my mid fifties, my kids are, way they’re in their twenties, mid twenties. The stuff that I worry about when they were, let’s say elementary or middle school, it was a big deal then. But, looking back it’s all perspective, I think that’s very good to keep in mind as you work with the older adults, learn from them. I’m learning a whole lot and I wish I would’ve payed closer attention when my dad was still around and I wish I paid more attention when my mom didn’t have dementia. There’s so much learnings that I could have gained better insight. So very good thoughts that you brought up and I appreciate that. So do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share?
I think of Dan Beuttner who, you know Dan Beuttner is from the Blue Zones? Diet, and so Dan Beuttner, was hired by National Geographic to travel around the world and find these areas where there’s no heart disease and people live, to a hundred without any health issues. And I think a lot that most of the people that talk about longevity or older. So sometimes I think, I guess relatively younger try “Could I write a book on my experiences to try and relate it to the younger generation about, aging or trying to add helpful tips?” because one thing, I don’t know if it’s interesting or not, but one thing is just, we’re all innately, interested in, on how to age and live a long life. Most of it is just through, healthy exercise and sleep and socializing. Those are the big three things that are supposed to help you have a long happy life.
I think it’s very important. I think that should be on many people’s minds because it certainly it’s in mine. I’m an advocate for aiming, the word is aiming, to live a healthy lifestyle. All the key components that you’ve mentioned brain health, you know exercise, proper nutrition, sleep Reduce stress through multiple means. I think there’s seven, 10 or 11. I don’t know if you ever achieve it to a hundred percent. It’s something that daily you just try to improve in every single one of those components. And I think that’s what life is. That’s what living is. That’s what, trying to maximize your longevity. I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve a hundred percent, but I’m damn straight aiming every day. So, well that’s wonderful. I appreciate this, a, time to talk to you, learn about you and your work. So thank you so much.
Alrighty. I’ll talk to you soon.
All right. Take care. Bye-bye.
Yeah, you too.