September 18, 2009


An old man; his skin showing generations of wear, his eyes closed, his teeth gripping a small key. Google searches produce an amazing array of fascinating images, but this one stood out. I clicked the link, and fell in love. Not with the old man, the key, nor the photographer responsible; but with the emotion I felt while staring at this, and the rest of the amazing collection of WWII Vet portraits I found.

Within minutes of looking at photo blogs and web portfolios, I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied with merely dragging the photos to my desktop. I was going to have to track down the artist behind the lens, and get to know him. Studying the compositions and raw emotion, my imagination painted a portrait of the photographer: a man, well into his life, who had experienced enough to not only connect with his subjects, but also to empathize with them, to see himself in his subjects.

I tracked him down through his website and got him on the phone. I wound up being right. And I couldn’t have been more wrong. The man behind the WWII vet photos has in fact experienced life. He does empathize with his subjects. But Thomas Sanders has learned to do all this in only 24 years of life.

When I called, he was somewhere between Tennessee and San Francisco - he doesn’t settle down much these days. While most 24-year olds are settling into their lives, looking to the future; Tom is traveling the country, sifting through the past. He takes photos of men and women three times his age, because they tell stories. They have seen it, lived it, and heard it all, and Tom knows that the lessons they can teach him, us, are lessons you won’t find in any book or on any History Channel special. Tom tells their stories through raw images that can only be captured by standing three feet from his subjects. And sometimes he gets even closer than that.

Part of the appeal of Tom’s work is Tom himself. He’s a 24-year old kid who has an iPod, surfs, and shoots with a digital camera. He knows what’s cool and knows how to be young. Yet he connects with his subjects in a way perhaps not possible with someone older. The Vets trust him. They see the youth and idealism in him that they themselves carried when they were his age.

Tom didn ’t set out to take on a project of this magnitude. It all started merely as a school project almost three years ago when Tom took photos at a local retirement community. Those images whispered stories nobody had heard before - stories about war, loss, pain and pride. Stories Belmont Retirement Community wanted to hear more of. So they sent Tom to all of their locations. He took more photos, talked to more Vets, and captured emotions that family members say they didn’t know existed.

“Hearing stories of these people’s lives put my own into perspective. Here’s this guy talking about tying his canteen around his stomach to keep his intestines in, and I’m stressing about finals.” A wake-up call perhaps, one of those moments in our lives that ‘clicks’, and makes us see things in a whole new light. It’s something like what you feel when you look at his work.

More than one hundred images into the “project,” Tom has no thoughts of slowing down. The men and women in his pictures are a dying breed, and Tom wants to embrace them and pass on their stories as much as possible. He has hopes of traveling around the world capturing portraits of all vets, despite affiliation half a century ago. Thomas’ photos transcend borders and beliefs, and with the overwhelming response from all generations, they transcend age as well.

The definition of heroes was written because of Tom’s subjects. After meeting him, getting to know his work and understanding that he doesn’t take these photos for himself, his portfolio, or the gallery walls on which they hang, but for us… I now recognize Thomas as a hero himself.

Visit Thomas' blog and online portfolio.