“My grandfather fought in World War II and his brother died in the Battle of the Bulge, so when I photographed a World War II veteran for a photography assignment while in college, it really gave me a sense of what my grandfather had been through,” says Tom Sanders, speaking of a project he completed in 2006 while studying photography at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Sanders was so moved by the experience that following graduation, he embarked on a journey to photograph World War II veterans across the country, leading to the 2010 publication of The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II, an award-winning book based on Sanders’ work.
Now a professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Sanders has never stopped photographing veterans, and one reason for that is a fortuitous meeting with Patricia Will, founder of Belmont Village Senior Living, early on in his career.
“It was at the beginning of 2009 while opening the Cardiff-by-the-Sea community that I met a brilliant young photographer interested in capturing images of veterans,” says Will, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe. “I was so intrigued, we commissioned Tom to photograph the veterans who lived with us.”
Will saw it as an opportunity to honor the many veterans living at Belmont Village, and Sanders’ portraits form an integral part of the public art at Belmont communities. Will soon realized that the project was also an extraordinary catalyst to get the veterans to share their stories.
“When they got home [from the war], they put their heads down and got to work,” says Will, speaking of the Greatest Generation, the men and women who survived both the Great Depression and World War II. “Many of their own family members didn’t know they were part of a team that liberated concentration camps or that they were on the only surviving plane from a mission over Italy. We are blessed to have these residents, and I thought, ‘This is really important.’”
Beginning eight years ago, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Sanders began a national tour of Belmont Village residences. One WWII veteran showed up in his leather flight jacket, which inspired Sanders to include uniforms and other personal memorabilia in his portraits. In addition to such precious objects, Sanders also enhances his photographs with backgrounds and other elements to highlight each veteran’s service. Over time, the Belmont Village project has expanded to include Korean War and Vietnam War veterans and is eventually expected to include Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as well. This past August, Sanders spent three days photographing veterans at its three San Diego locations in La Jolla, Cardiff, and Sabre Springs.
Since The Last Good War, Sanders has published a book on Vietnam veterans, and his work is now on permanent display at both Midway and O’Hare airports in Chicago. With that as an example, Will hopes San Diego and other cities will take notice. “The military is so important here in San Diego, in addition to which many pilots are veterans,” says Will. “Seeing the response in Chicago — people young and old stopping to look — I’m certain Tom’s photographs would not only be a great introduction to our city, but a great way to honor our veterans’ contribution to our country.”