Local photography professor Tom Sanders’ niche is making mature people look cool and positive
Written by COLLEEN ANN McNALLY
Photography by TOM SANDERS
A COLLEGE ASSIGNMENT to photograph a random person fundamentally changed Tom Sanders’ point of view on life.
“I ended up going to this senior living community that was next door to where I was living in California,” Sanders recalls. He happened to photograph a World War II veteran who told him a dramatic war story about getting injured during battle.
“He was 21 when that happened to him, and I was 21 when I photographed him,” Sanders says. “My grandfather was in WWII, and his brother died during the Battle of the Bulge. Once I photographed that first veteran, I thought, ‘Wow, I can finally understand what my grandfather went through and what veterans go through’ — or as much as I could as a civilian.”
“If you are able to live to 100, everyone should be doing their best to take good care of themselves now. There’s so much information out there on how you can age really well.”– Tom Sanders
Later, Sanders moved to Los Angeles and took on more high-profile assignments, including photographing Oscar-winning celebrities for glossy magazines. Yet, the experience with the veteran stayed with him and ignited a personal project to document more veterans in his free time.
Then, Belmont Village Senior Living discovered the project and commissioned Sanders to visit 24 of their communities around the country with his camera. The resulting photos are on display in permanent galleries and blossomed into Sanders’ first coffee table book, “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II” (Random House).
Sanders found his niche. “I decided to fully dedicate myself to doing film and photoshoots on longevity and aging for senior living companies,” he says. It’s a space without much competition, although that is not his sole motivation.
“Most creatives and photographers don’t want to spend time in a senior living community because it’s not glamorous. It’s hard to do, too,” he says. “I often capture people with dementia and people with physical and cognitive challenges. I have to be a really great visual storyteller for my clients in order to create these respectful, positive images of them.”
His specialty is making mature people look cool and positive — bucking the trend of what is typically depicted in the media. His oldest subject? A 110-year-old woman who “was actually in phenomenal shape,” he says.
In 2019, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) recruited Sanders to teach and he relocated with his family to Savannah. Here, he loves finding local legends for his lens, including Captain Judy Helmey, owner of Miss Judy Charters, tea sommelier Wayne Ashford and wildlife catcher Trapper Jack Douglas. “Savannah has so many great characters and so much great history, more so than other places,” he says.
In 2019, Sanders also launched Senior Stock Photos, an online database to create more “real, positive aging images.” The photos are available royalty-free, meaning they can be used forever once purchased. He sees this effort especially important as the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is introducing more fake images.
“If you Google ‘mature woman,’ it’s always this skinny, gray-haired woman who is Caucasian,” Sanders says. “It doesn’t really represent ethnic diversity or aging very well in the stock [image] world.”
On the upside, he sees some national magazines showcasing mature individuals on their covers. For example, Martha Stewart graced the cover of Sports Illustrated earlier this year at age 81, and the April 2023 edition of Vogue Philippines gained worldwide attention when it featured an 106-year-old on the cover of its Beauty Issue.
As a professor of photography at SCAD, Sanders aims to share much more than technical skills and industry best practices with his students. He also shares insights he’s picked up after years of meeting and interviewing longevity and happiness experts from The Buck Institute for Research on Aging to Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and founder of Blue Zones — regions in the world where people are living longer than average likely due to factors like strong communities, social ties, healthy diets and active lifestyles, among others.
“Gen Z will likely live to 100 years old. That means you have to save up a lot of money for that,” Sanders says. “And if you are able to live to 100, everyone should be doing their best to take good care of themselves now. There’s so much information out there on how you can age really well.”
And he practices what he preaches. That includes a regime of intermittent fasting, vitamins, eight hours of sleep each night, transcendental meditation once a day and catching waves on Tybee Island when he can. “I hope to still be surfing in my 80s if possible,” Sanders says.