"A Common Humanity"

Beverly Smaby

"A Common Humanity" is a moving article in a unique magazine. Works & Conversations interviews Bob Sadler who, after age 70, discovered that his skill as a photographer could be used toward social justice. His transformation begins in 1983, when a homeless man wheeling a grocery cart interrupts him during a river photo-shoot.  He is first annoyed, then stunned, when the homeless man shares a deep insight into art.  As the nameless man walks away into the river fog, Sadler just watches and doesn't think to catch his leaving on camera.

As memorable as that missed shot was, Sadler did not find his way to photographing homeless men until nearly 30 years later, and then only by chance.  The outreach program in Sadler’s church in Monterey, California hosts 30 homeless men one Sunday per month, preparing dinner and breakfast for them and providing shelter for the night.  In 2012 Sadler was asked to do a slide show of some of the men for a Sunday service, so that the whole congregation could learn about the program.  Just three men reluctantly agreed to be photographed, but after seeing the results, others wanted their portraits taken, too.

That was just the beginning.  Drawing on the years’ long influence of Dorothea Lange’s poignant, dignified portraits of poor people during the Great Depression and Yousef Karsh’s dramatically lit, insightful portraits of celebrities, Sadler developed his own artistic space somewhere in between.  Like Lange, he was able to get through the masks that distressed people wear, past their hard luck stories, into their places of dignity. Like Karsh, he learned to use lighting to enhance that dignity.  But then his photos began to change the men themselves.  When they saw the transformations of their posture and faces from one image to the next during their photo shoots, they rediscovered who they were.  Many of them went out to find homes and jobs and build new lives.

Now, a traveling exhibit of these photos will change the public’s views of who homeless people are, how photography can beget social change, what one person can do to support social justice, and how people like Sadler can find their life’s purpose well into "seniorhood." The first showing of "Inherent Worth and Dignity: Living Portraits" will take place at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, California from September 5th to 30th. I’m tempted to use my miles and fly down there for the opening reception, but then I think, why not just invite him to Tacoma instead?  I’m in the process of contacting the Tacoma Art Museum.  If any of you have contacts with other organizations that would be interested in co-sponsoring a showing of "Inherent Worth and Dignity," email feedback@thepierceprogressive.org.

Follow this link to the insight-filled original article. To see Bob Sadler’s beautiful and surprising portraits of these men, follow this link. For a video giving more details about the exhibit as described by Bob Sadler himself and others involved in creating the exhibit, follow this link.