A Photographic Journey

by David Sanger

It was a clear spring morning on San Francisco Bay. Driving to work across the Bay Bridge I could see the green hills of the Marin Headlands set against the blue sky. I had spent the weekend traipsing through the East Bay parks, photographing wildflowers along the trails, getting away from it all. Now I felt a familiar sinking feeling—a yearning and a disappointment. “God,” I thought, “I’d love to be out photographing in the hills.”

Then the Committee (my inner critic) chimed in. Responsibility involved Sacrifice and Discipline, “holy” character traits. “Going to work” was responsible. Looking out the window? Ah, well!

It was 1992. In my job at a database company, developing software that probably would never see the light of day, I felt I was shriveling away. By many standards I was quite successful: regular promotions, a high salary, and stock options. But my work certainly wasn’t heartfelt.

My heart was more and more in weekend hikes and outdoor activities and a midweek master photography class. On the trail, in the backcountry, climbing Mount Diablo, or getting up at dawn to shoot a sunrise, I felt alive, enthusiastic, and hopeful. There were so many things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go.

Woman with a parasol walks across the Portuguese mosaic tiles of Macau’s Leal Senado Square. From a story photographed for Northwest Airlines World Traveler.
Photo by David Sanger.

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked my longtime spiritual director later that week, as I tried to unravel the confusing urges and yearnings. Donald’s answer surprised me. Like all good advice it immediately rang true and was completely unexpected.

“Did it ever occur to you that this desire is God’s gift to you?”

Gift? What an odd idea! And what a liberating idea!

This wasn’t in the picture. My God, the God I understood, favored responsibility, even obedience, and assiduous attention to “doing good.” Work certainly wasn’t a welcome gift. For 15 years I had struggled with a computer career that left me complaining each night to my wife, Sally. It was noble. But I was not happy.

The change of viewpoint (the metanoia) in Donald’s question made all the difference. A God who delighted in my photography, who actually wanted me to go traipsing across the hills, was a different God altogether. Suddenly what had been struggle became an invitation—to my own true work.

Newark Slough in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. In the distance the channel traverses the Dumbarton Marsh, a rare intact remnant of the South Bay’s wetland rim. From San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary. Photo by David Sanger.

Since college years, I had consciously been on a quest, exploring, wandering. and wondering. In the early 1970s I journeyed overland to India with a camera and backpack, then returned to a difficult recovery from my self-induced drug experiences. After a brief stint as a postulant at the Order of the Holy Cross, I moved west and married Sally soon afterwards. For a while I studied at the Episcopal School of Deacons. All along I harbored an unspoken, inchoate belief that there must be a way of life for me that was genuine.

I backed into my computer career because we needed the money, and it was the only thing I knew how to do. It wasn’t the answer, but my only response to unhappiness was to try harder. In my family of origin, supporting one’s family was ’‘noble suffering.” That had been my father’s defense to explain why he left academic medicine for private practice.

The discovery of my life as a photographer was a slow transformation. Sometimes along the way I felt hints that God was involved in the process. Once, after I’d been laid off by a consulting firm, a chance lunch meeting with an old friend led to a job with a new systems group at American Airlines. The world of travel reopened to me. As an employee I could fly standby—Australia, the Caribbean, England—for almost nothing. It was too good to believe.

Another hint came after a career workshop in Berkeley where I’d identified three areas of interest: travel, photography, and writing. On a snow-camping trip to Mount Lassen, only three other people showed up: the group leader, a photographer covering the winter’s snows, a writer, and me. This wasn’t an accident. Our three days in a small tent in the pristine winter wilderness let me ask all the questions I could think of.

A series of career exercises and books gave me hope, but each time, back in the conference room at work or sitting in front of the computer screen, my desires still seemed like temptations.

Monks with their begging bowls crossing a suspension bridge in the early morning, Sukothai, Thailand. Photo by David Sanger.

One career-planning project finally bore fruit. Working with Marin writer Nancy Anderson, author of Work with Passion, I wrote a series of autobiographical exercises. Asked to identify the most satisfying activities in my entire life, I wrote about a recent climb to the summit of Mount Shasta—something I never, ever thought I could do. Being wrong about my limitations was a surprise and a relief. Just because I didn’t think something was possible didn’t mean that was true.

Even with all the encouragement, it took a slight push from God for me to leave the comfortable income of computer work. It began with a sudden and unexpected thought, “Well, if Ansel Adams can be a photographer and Galen Rowell can be a photographer, then there’s no reason in the universe why David Sanger can’t be one too.” Suddenly I realized I had given myself permission. God had been waiting in the wings for that moment. The primary obstacle had been my own disbelief.

Two weeks later, the database company I worked for was unexpectedly acquired by AT&T. Our small San Francisco software group didn’t fit AT&T’s business plan. When we were called into a conference room and laid off, the message was clear. God had provided me with nine months’ severance pay plus vacation, a computer, and a clear affirmation. “If you want to be a photographer, go right ahead. I thought you’d never ask!”

Along this way, the initial question "What will make me happy?" has gradually transformed into "What am I called to do?" Photographing the Dalai Lama and an interfaith group in Jerusalem; journeying to Laos to photograph for Lee Thorn’s Jhai Foundation; and covering open-heart surgery by American cardiac surgeons in Russia all went beyond personal satisfaction. … The photography fits into a wider purpose.

My first commission was to photograph a parish profile for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. Then assignments for the East Bay Regional Parks District led me outdoors, to the green hills I’d longed for. Gradually the projects grew. Traveling overseas was especially satisfying. I photographed for three weeks on a mountaineering trip to Bolivia, led a photo safari across China, and photographed spas in Germany and landscapes in Cape Town.

An essential element was objective validation of the work, of my photographic abilities, by others. A prize from a mountaineering photography competition, another from a San Francisco Chronicle photo competition on the bay, a calendar sale to the Sierra Club, a Travel Photographer of the Year award—all showed that other people thought my work was worthwhile.

My inner critic, though muted, still lingered. I understood how to design a business card, make the first few marketing calls, and find the first few assignments, but even then I didn’t admit the possibility of actually succeeding. Determined to see how far I could go, however, I just kept on. Looking back, it seems like a dream. The severance pay ran out, then a large part of an inheritance Sally had received, then generous gifts from my parents, and then all our available credit. Had I known the depth of difficulties that lay ahead, I wouldn’t have taken the first step. But another gift God gave me is persistence (a.k.a. stubbornness), and doggedly I plowed forward. The first year I lost $21,000.

Once on an assignment in India I lost a return train ticket from Agra to Delhi and spent my last rupees to buy a replacement. Riding the train, I prayed, “God, how am I going to get from the train station to my hotel?” I had no idea myself. Arriving in Delhi I bargained with a bicycle rickshaw driver. “Take me to the Bank of America ATM and I’ll get some money to pay you. I need to go to the Oberoi Hotel.” The unnamed driver pedaled me there at midnight, waited patiently while my card didn’t work, and then said, “No problem. I come back tomorrow.” Sure enough, the next morning, outside the gate of the five-star hotel was the driver, peacefully smiling and ready to take me to the bank.

California oak tree at dawn, Mount Diablo State Park. From a series for Save Mount Diablo. Photo by David Sanger.

Dark doubts still appear with regularity, usually in the form of “What am I doing wrong?” It seems presumptuous to think God will always step in when there’s a shortfall, yet sometimes there’s no other option. I repeat to other people the story of the Israelites in the desert, murmuring against God. The manna comes in the morning and God asks them, “What did you think? That I’d bring you out into the desert to die?” My answer is always, “Yes, Lord, that’s exactly what I thought.”

Faith, for Paul, is “the evidence of things not seen.” Imagining that “all will be well” when the evidence shows otherwise is faith. It is a gift. When there is no money in the bank and the health insurance premium is due, it’s not easy to believe. Once Sally and I were on our knees praying for a check, when a clunk in the mailbox gave us a direct and immediate answer. More often, though, faith is waiting and waiting and waiting. Then, when things seems darkest, there’s an encouraging sign.

Photography itself nourishes me. The joy of watching the sun rise over South African vineyards or North Bay wetlands, and the pleasure of bringing back images make up for many long hours in the office editing, marketing, and selling images.

Along this way, the initial question “What will make me happy?” has gradually transformed into “What am I called to do?” Photographing the Dalai Lama, Bishop Swing, and an interfaith group in Jerusalem; journeying to Laos to photograph for Lee Thorn’s Jhai Foundation; and covering open-heart surgery by American cardiac surgeons in Russia all went beyond personal satisfaction. Other people benefit from the images. The photography fits into a wider purpose.

This has become clearer with my recent book on San Francisco Bay. A friend, California writer John Hart, and I wanted to work on a book together and wrote a proposal for a photographic book on the bay . When we met with publishers and major environmental organizations, we were surprised at their enthusiasm. There hadn’t been a major book on San Francisco Bay in almost 50 years, and the time was right. National Audubon Society and The Bay Institute sponsored the project and helped us find foundation grants.

Working on a long-term project on the bay has been immensely satisfying on a personal level. A strong personal affirmation comes with holding and touching the physical artifact. Like the Incarnation, it is something invisible made real. And it benefits everyone.

Last month, just after we received our first advance copy, John and I gave a slide show to donors and the board of directors of Audubon at a San Francisco waterfront restaurant. It was a clear spring morning on the bay. I could see the green hills of the Marin Headlands set against the blue sky.

Who knows what lies ahead?

David Sanger is a professional photographer and member of St. Gregory’s. His new book, San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary, will be released by the University of California Press in September 2003. For details see www.sanfranciscobaybook.org and www.davidsanger.com.

Top of page  |  Contents Vol 14 No 2   |  God's Friends Home  |  Saint Gregory's Church