The extraordinary thing about David Sanders is not the path that led him into photography but the swift, sure-footed way he transformed his adolescent dream into a flourishing career. Like many pros, David discovered his love of photography while watching his first black-and-white prints emerge from the developer in a high school photo lab and got his first camera as a gift from his parents. ‘My mom was an artist, a water colorist,’ he says. ‘She bought me my first camera. It was a Nikon F3, which cost a lot of money at the time, but she didn’t balk. She’s never discouraged me from doing what I wanted.’
While still in high school, Sanders began shooting prep school sports for a couple of local newspapers, then took a summer internship at the Denver Post, where he caught the eye of photo-editor Richard Clarkson, a widely respected pro with connections to top magazines including Sports Illustrated and National Geographic.
‘In the summer of my senior year, I got to travel around the country with him on assignments for Sports Illustrated,’ says Sanders. ‘I met a lot of talented people and thought this was a field I really wanted to pursue. I never went into it thinking I wanted to change the world. I was always more realistic, more practical. I just thought it would be really cool way to support myself and asked what steps I had to take to make that happen. I’m lucky in that I didn’t have to go through the last two years of high school or college wondering what was I going to do with my life.’
Sanders is currently a staff photographer at Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, where he has worked for the past 20 years. During those decades, he has also freelanced for editorial clients such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Smithsonian, Sunset, Newsweek, Golf Digest, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and the Discovery Channel. His corporate accounts include Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes Benz and North Face. Sanders was the1996 Arizona Press Photographer of the Year, and has been a consistent winner in the annual competitions of the National Press Photographers Association, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nominee. He holds an Associates degree in photography degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a journalism degree from the University of Arizona. He has been married almost 20 years and has three girls, aged 13, 9 and 5.
‘The beauty of working at the Star is that they also allow me to do a lot of freelance work so I have the best of both worlds,’ says Sanders. ‘I wake up every morning knowing that I have a job. Some days, I’ll walk in, and they’ll hand me a plane ticket to cover an earthquake in Los Angeles, or send me to shoot fashion models, or to cover the World Series. Every day is different, which is why I love photojournalism. With freelance, I have much more freedom to pick and choose among assignments.’
Since the harsher side of human existence tends to grab the attention of newspaper editors, Sanders seeks balance by choosing freelance assignments that highlight ‘positive moments and unique situations.’ His work for the Discovery Channel, for instance, has allowed him to photograph scientific and athletic achievements around the world. Highlights include getting dropped off on a glacier in New Zealand to watch teams of ‘Eco-Racers’ hike across a glacier, and documenting a dinosaur-dig in Mongolia where paleontologists unearthed a complete Ankylosaurus (an endearing armor-plated herbivore with a ferocious club at the end of its tail).
‘I kid you not,’ says Sanders. ‘They found the whole skeleton, spikes and everything. It was amazing. Those kinds of wonders just open your eyes. They also make you ask: how do I capture something so unique and amazing.’
Sanders thrives on situations that challenge him to adopt a new angle or technique and hopes to communicate that openness to his students in the Digital Photo Academy. ‘I like situations that push me a little,’ he says, ‘because I never want to stop learning about photography. I might try a new angle on a familiar scene or zoom in on a single feature of a face rather than doing a traditional portrait. I try to keep my vision fresh by always staying open to new ideas and things.’
Camera basics are important to Sanders not as an end in themselves but as the springboard into self-expression. ‘Photography is very simply about action and reaction,’ he says, ‘whether it’s sports, major news events or personal moments. You learn camera basics so that you can work almost automatically and react spontaneously to what’s happening in front of your eyes.’
Students who come to Sanders’ workshop in quest of magic formulas that make bad pictures disappear might be disillusioned. ‘When I started taking classes at the Rochester Institute,’ he says, ‘I thought that maybe there were such formulas. But one of the first things they said was we can’t take you to a scene and tell you precisely how to make a good picture. We can teach technical aspects and composition so that you feel comfortable enough to concentrate on your vision. But there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. Sure you might overexpose or blur your image, but that over-exposure might turn out to be really neat picture. Photography is a really free medium in a lot of different ways.’
Call Digital Photo Academy at 1 877 372 2231. Lots of people seem to hang up if our welcome recording comes on instead of a live voice, but we promise to return your message within a day or two if you leave one with your name and number. It would be even better if you included your e mail address as well as the date and city of the class you are considering. If leaving a voice mail message is not your thing, please email us at DPAbooking@digitalphotoacademy.com or Richard@digitalphotoacademy.com.