Thomas Sanders was an 18-year-old Cal Poly student when he created a list of goals and taped them to the wall of his third floor Sierra Madre Hall dorm room. The third item on the list read, “Get a book published by a big American publisher.”
During his last year as an art and design senior, Sanders casually walked to the Veterans’ Hall on Grand Avenue in search of an interesting photo subject. The young photography student met Randall Harris, a World War II veteran with a 6-inch scar and one heck of a story.
When he met Harris, Sanders was stressing about his future career, final exams and getting a cute girl’s phone number.
“I remember thinking, ‘When Randall was my age, his only goal was to live to the next day,’” Sanders said. “In that moment, I made the decision to photograph as many World War II vets as I possibly could.”
As a 2006 Cal Poly alumnus, Sanders created his first award-winning book, “The Last Good War,” which was released in November 2010. The book contains the faces and voices of World War II veterans.
On April 7, Sanders held a book-signing event on campus where students had the opportunity to ask questions about his young success. Students poured into the halls of the Walter F. Dexter Building to meet Sanders.
Some students, such as art and design senior Caitlin Beyer, were inspired by the quality of Sanders’ photos.
“I admire his ability to photograph people who aren’t typically photographed,” Beyer said. “You have to have a lot of talent to produce the quality of the photos in this book.”
Within the book lies the story of Edith Shain, the iconic face appearing in “V-J day in Times Square,” originally published in Time magazine. The image of a nurse being kissed in Times Square represents the day of celebration for many Americans.
“Edith Shain was the most difficult person in the book to photograph,” Sanders said, “The feisty woman refused to take off her sunglasses.”
While creating the book, Sanders met veterans with walkers or wheelchairs who would “shove their walkers aside, or get up from their wheelchairs and stand with dignity and honor when I took their pictures,” he said.
Robert Watson, a veteran who invaded on D-Day and spent 28 nights on the beaches of Normandy, said the story Sanders conveys is worth telling.
“This book is for those who sacrificed their lives,” Watson said. “Their story has to be told and should be told.”
Watson said he cherishes “The Last Good War” and admires Sanders’ work.
“Tom Sanders is very ambitious and talented,” he said. “I’m not all too keen about my picture though. I can’t possibly look that old.”
With a zoom lens and a natural sky background, Sanders uses a unique style of lighting to enhance each of the veterans’ facial features.
“It’s only about their faces,” Sanders said, “Their faces are like maps. You can see every story in their face.”
Cal Poly professors saw potential in Sanders early in his Cal Poly career. Art and design department chair Sky Bergman said she takes pride in Sanders’ work.
“He definitely stood out,” Bergman said. “There are always three or four students you know are going to go and do something truly remarkable. I feel like a proud parent.”
Photography professor Eric Johnson also speaks highly of Sanders.
“He always had this wonderful ability to see light,” Johnson said. “Now seeing him publish such a successful book … it’s something that money can’t buy.”
When Sanders was Bergman’s student, she asked him to write a list of goals for the future.
“The professors at Cal Poly can teach you a lot,” Sanders said. “But ultimately, you have to go out there and do it.”
Publishing a book about World War II is not within the career path of most 26-year-olds, though. After stumbling upon Harris in 2006, Sanders discovered his interest in war photography, and what began as a senior project turned into a successful passion.
“I’ve kind of accidentally branded myself as a war photographer, but I’m good at it,” Sanders said.
Once the book tour ends, Sanders said he is considering collecting the experiences of veterans who served in Vietnam.
“I feel passionate about photographing these men and women, and I relate to them,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he is not shocked by the success that has come his way since publishing the book because he had these types of goals for years and knew he would get published, eventually.
“I knew I had accomplished my goal when I walked into Barnes and Noble and saw my book sitting in the new releases.”