By Adefoyeke Ajao
Many images in Tom Saater’s portfolio capture the aftermaths of terrorism, climate change, socioeconomic inequality or other disasters, but when it comes to depicting the human victims of these disasters, he upends popular depictions of squalor by presenting them as dignified figures – in spite of their dire circumstances.
Saater’s empathy for his subjects reflects his own humble beginnings: Rendered homeless by the death of his grandmother, Saater’s interest in photography was piqued during the 10 years he spent sleeping rough on the streets. This curiosity was constantly fed by the colourful images he found on the pages of the newspapers and magazines that were sold at a newspaper stand near where he slept. Even when he couldn’t afford a camera of his own, Saater would borrow, at times from strangers, just to master the device’s technicalities.
The empathic bond he shares with his subjects is evident in his images of ‘Area Boys’. While society typecasts Area Boys as louts and criminals, Saater uses candid shots and conversations to explore their often sordid life stories. Ironically, he embarked on this project after being attacked by Area Boys during one of his photo shoots. In this collection, Saater tries to humanise a set of people many would prefer to give a wide berth. According to him, he “wanted to understand [his] attackers and the desperation that fuels their violence”.
Since becoming a professional photographer 11 years ago, Saater has built an enviable clientele that includes many of the world’s most respected brands. His work has also featured at prestigious events including the Venice Biennale (2015), LOOK3 Festival (2016), and Addis Foto Festival (2010).
Tom Saater is remarkable not just for the quality of his images, but because he does not exploit his subjects for the sake of creating disaster porn. He bonds with them and wants to show them at their best, rather than reducing them to pitiable objects just to attract sympathy.
To see more of Tom Saater’s work, visit his Art635 page or his Instagram profile @tomsaater
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