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This Doesn't Apply to You Does It? Blah Resident Photos Can Kill Your Marketing

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This is an edited version of a conversation between Senior Housing Forum Podcast Producer Pam McDonald and photographer Tom Sanders.

You Can listen to the podcast Here.  We know you will enjoy it.

PAM:

Today's guest is Tom Sanders, a professional photographer and filmmaker with over 15 years’ experience. He focuses on capturing dramatic portraits of elders that grab our attention. Here he shares his recommendations for taking better photos to improve your marketing and social media efforts.

So, Tom, throughout your photography career, have you sort of focused on senior living or did that come later?

TOM:

Yeah, I had this homework assignment, where I photographed a World War II veteran. He told me this really dramatic war story and it really helped put my life into perspective. I was 21 years old, I had this easy college life. And so, I felt like I was getting stressed out about these little things when these World War II veterans were hoping and praying to live to the next day. And so, I created this goal.

I wrote on a piece of paper I stuck on the wall that I wanted to travel the country and photograph as many World War II veterans as I could, interview them, and get a big coffee table book published. Then Belmont Village Senior Living discovered my project and they commissioned me to travel the country and go to all their communities and photograph veterans living in their communities. And every photo shoot resulted in a permanent exhibition.

And, that gave me the material to get a book published. And that's been an ongoing project with Belmont Village as well for I think over 10 years. Residents pass away, and new veterans move into the communities, so I fly out to wherever, Texas, Georgia, all over California, and photograph veterans living in their communities. And so that's how I got my foot in the door in senior living. I kind of just fell into it.

I then saw this need . . . There's a lot of stock photography that senior living communities use and they're competing against each other and you'll see the same photos. So, I thought, why not create this film and photography business where I cater specifically to aging.

I did create a stock photography website for the senior living industry. I noticed that most stock photography is just very canned and cheesy. The average age in most senior living communities is, I believe, 85 years old and a lot of senior living companies are using photos of people that are more like 75 years old or younger. There's not a lot of stock photography out there that represents that age. So, I'm really trying to photograph people more in their 70s and 80s that do represent the actual age of the residents living in the community.

PAM:

Do you think there are lots of opportunities for taking photos in senior living that the communities themselves aren't making the best use of?

TOM:

Yeah. I really think that senior living communities need to find the characters within their communities, such as . . .  I did a film for MBK Senior Living on this painter and she's going blind. She has this really beautiful optimistic outlook on life, even though she's losing her sight and she's an artist. But it ended up getting picked up on the positive news website, Upworthy, and the video got a million views. So, I really encourage senior living communities to find these characters and help tell their stories. Then you can associate . . . the senior living companies can associate their brand with this resident because these are the types of people that are living within your community.

PAM:

I was just going to follow up on what you had said earlier about storytelling per se through photography. I don't think most people start that way. They're just thinking about snapping a photo. Tell me about storytelling. 

TOM:

Within storytelling and taking portraits at senior living communities, there are so many ways to highlight residents and get your name brand out there as well on social media. I did a series on couples that were married for over 50 years and that got a TV news interview in Los Angeles and a bunch of big social media attention.

It’s actually my most . . . on Pinterest, it's my most pinned photo series because people want to know how to have these really long marriages. And so, you can simply photograph a nice portrait of a couple that's been married for a long time outside in a rose garden, hugging or kissing or dancing. It's about getting the gesture, really making sure that the background isn’t busy . . .

PAM:

We’ll go through the tips for the photos themselves separately because I think they're important. I just want . . . before we leave the storytelling aspect of it. Do you recommend that the communities themselves shoot snapshots for their signage and things like that on their own and then use a videographer or a professional photographer when they've got a story they want told?

TOM:

I think that when senior living communities find a resident who has a really powerful story, they really should outsource and hire a freelance photographer or filmmaker. I've noticed that some senior living companies on LinkedIn, for example, might be posting a photo every day of a resident and have some little story about him or her. The photos aren't always that good and have maybe a few likes. They're trying to get visibility and I'm seeing it, but it doesn't really impress me.

You really have to create content with residents that have really powerful stories. I think that the corporate headquarters has to communicate in a very strong and clear manner how to create these stories. Because most of the people that are taking these photos of these residents might be the Personal Expressions person or the activities directors, but they're not photographers or filmmakers, right? And so, they really should be trained on how to take good photos and be a good storyteller. Unless you have a natural background for it, it's not really likely that you're going to get good content.

PAM:

Right. So, so let's talk about some of those tips for making their pictures better. You were just talking about making sure that you're looking at the whole background and not getting a lot of clutter in there. Tell me about that.

TOM:

There’re all sorts of ways to take good portraits of residents. Sometimes you can isolate the resident against the sky, shoot a low angle, it becomes a natural backdrop. A lot of people think that you want to stick someone directly in the sun with the sun hitting the face and then take the portrait. It's actually better to backlight and that's where the sun is behind the person and you get prettier energy. When the sun's behind the person, it's more complimentary to the resident’s skin. Also If the sun is hitting the building and then is also behind the resident and you bring that resident closer to the building, the sun's going to bounce off the building and act as a big giant reflector to fill in the shadow in their face.

For indoors, a lot of the times overhead lighting, it's not a very . . . it doesn't compliment people's facial features very well because you get a shadow in the eyes. So, it's usually good to try and get the residents over by windows. Stick them in the patio areas.

I should mention that all photographs and films are storytelling, right? So, there’s a very famous portrait that Dorothea Lange took the 1930s. It's posed and it’s a Depression Era portrait of a woman with her hand on her head. She photographed the woman at 12 o'clock, which is kind of like a big no, no, that they teach you in photo classes. “Don't photograph anybody midday because it's not attractive lighting.” But the lighting, the sunken shadowing of her eyes, under her nose, in her cheeks really makes the viewer feel the suffering of this Depression Era woman. So ideally, it's good to photograph people at the end of the day and at the beginning of the day for lighting. But depending on your story, you want some drama, maybe it's okay. You stick them under that light and you get the dark shadows if it plays into their story.

PAM:

Right. That's an iconic photograph and that also brings up the whole idea about should you be shooting in color or is black and white still more dramatic. Before we get to that, though, let's talk about, again, it's about storytelling. The photo you were just mentioning makes you feel something. How important is that?

TOM:

You know, again content and casting of your residents is incredibly important. I did a film on a 91-year-old cyclist who rides his bike 150 miles a week. And that's a great story, you know? And so that's where you got to start. You've got to do a good casting of your residents. Learn their stories, talk to him, and then find a way to profile their stories.

PAM:

What do you think about putting makeup on residents?

TOM:

Interesting enough, when I shoot advertising jobs, sometimes I have makeup on my residents. It's in the budget for the company to hire a makeup artist. You add 600 to 700 dollars, depending on what area you're in. And sometimes I don't have makeup. The creative director might be touching them up with a little bit of lipstick. I think that it's beneficial to have makeup when you can because it just looks more professional. A lot of old men are bald, and you get the sheen on their head. But I also don't always have it. When I photographed my veterans, I have dramatic lighting. I want to celebrate those wrinkles. So, it just really depends on what you're shooting. But for video, you definitely should always have makeup.

PAM:

Oh, really? You think that's just needed, huh?

TOM:

I do just because it just looks more professional and takes away the sheen from your lighting. It definitely adds to the story.

PAM:

So, go back to color versus black and white. What are the effects of each one of those?

TOM:

Again, looking at my veteran’s series. Sometimes the female veterans, when we photograph them, I change the women to a black and white image. People will say, “Wow, that’s a great portrait of that man” And I say, “That's actually a woman.” So, I really try and keep all my female portraits in color because as we get older we do become more androgynous looking. It's just part of life. So, I keep an image in color to make sure that the viewer sees the woman's lipstick. Or if they are holding an object and keeping it in color is more important than in black and white, you know, might be more eye-catching. Those are just kind of conscious things you have to play with and I always really encourage people . . .

I got my Master’s in photography from San Jose State. I taught there, and we always had these critiques both with my students and then also in the grad class. And when you're critiquing an image, it's good to get your photos in front of a large audience. Then you can say, do you like this color image? Or you got this black and white image and generally, you'll get a good consensus on what to pick.

PAM:

So, you sort of mentioned props, but do you want to talk a little bit more specifically about it?

TOM:

I recently did a photo shoot in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Arbor Company and we have this garden scene. We had a prop stylist. This is stuff that people can do themselves. I mean, it's usually good to hire professionals if you can, but, and it's not always in the budget. But I was photographing these two men gardening and I had this basket with radishes and one of the residents had a red hat on. And these two guys are kind of goofing around, but it gave these great pops of color. If we didn't bring the radishes it just wouldn't have been the same photo. Is that false advertising? Yeah, it is, but all photography is a form of manipulation. You are capturing this moment for a second. You're asking someone to pose, so it's okay to add props.

PAM:

You were talking about posing and it seems to me that you have a bias for that over candid. Am I correct?

TOM:

Yeah. I had one client that said, “Show them my community and shoot whatever you want; just go around and shoot the residents.” The photos didn't come out very well. Eventually we started doing a posed photo shoot. Because you can't just show up. There's a resident wearing a San Francisco Giants tee shirt with stains all over it. They got to put a nice shirt on. You've got to stay away from logos. You got to clean their makeup or do a little makeup touch up if you can. Have them put on a hat. You still can create authentic looking imagery with posing people. You don't necessarily have to have him look at the camera and, while they're not models eventually they will naturally interact.

PAM:

One of the things you have to worry about in senior living is you don't just want to show great pictures of people -- by great, I mean big pictures of people sitting around doing nothing. What do you think about having some sort of action? It's not in video, but in photos, you can hand somebody something.

TOM:

I've noticed that a lot of senior living companies like to do painting or playing pool. I really encourage senior living communities to pick more modern activities. Or, if it is painting, make it look more modern. Have them painting something abstract, don't have them painting your stereotypical beach sunset or whatever.

It's important to have the residents doing activities while photographing them because then they feel more natural. A lot of senior living communities do these charity classes. So, they could be making gift bags for kids for children's hospitals. They can be whatever, playing bocce ball outside.

Most of my photographs of seniors are actual residents. It's very, very rare that you can even find a model in their eighties or nineties. You can for the 55-plus senior living companies. You're dealing with real people and they're not always comfortable getting their photo taken. You really have to have them do some sort of activity while you're photographing them. And, of course, it depends on what story you're telling, but I think it's typically better to not have them look at the camera cause then it's much more candid.

PAM:

Is there a lot more manipulation you need to do for photography or videography depending on if you're using it for social media as opposed to a brochure?

TOM:

There’s some video . . .  I always pick this example of three turkeys running around a tree and it had 30 million views. And while I taught in grad school at San Jose State, I was always happier with the students that could create a better story and have a technically weak image. So, everything is rooted in storytelling.

The guy that made the movie, The Florida Project, he made a movie before that, I think it's called Tangerine. He filmed everything on an iPhone. They have professional film editing and sound and all that stuff, and maybe the film quality isn't that great, but everything is so strongly rooted in storytelling.

 PAM:

This is the point at which I say to you, what haven't I asked that's really critical? 

TOM:

I want to backtrack a little bit. I mentioned the difference between a posed portrait and not having residents look at the camera. I keep mentioning, what is the story you're telling? You can have the residents look at the camera. A lot of my veteran portraits are looking at the camera, which means they're confronting the viewer. So, it just, again, depends on the story you want to tell.

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