Sandro Miller

WINNER, IPA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR, 2019

Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Elgin, close to Chicago. What did the life of the young Sandro Miller look like? 

It was a bit of a difficult childhood. We lost our father when I was 4 years old. My mother was an immigrant from Italy now raising 3 kids on her own. We basically lived off a government check of about 400 USD per month for most of my childhood.

I never really felt poor because my mother was very loving.  She could cook a killer meal out of nothing. Giver her some tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and few other simple ingredients and were eating the best pasta you ever had.

My childhood certainly was more than dysfunctional. I have been asked a few times to write a book about the hardships of my childhood, but why focus on all that negativity?  In so many ways my life had so many positive people around, always helping and lending a hand. My whole life I have felt like there was someone there for me to help me pick up the broken pieces.

I loved sports and would generally play different kinds of sports everyday all day long. We lived on a dead-end street. Although it was concrete, it seemed like a heavenly park to us. I think the best memories of my childhood really centered around sports and seeing my mother in the stands cheering me on even though she didn’t understand a thing about the sports I was playing.  Also, as a child I enjoyed collecting baseball cards and coins and riding a bicycle for hours on end. It was on that old beat-up Schwinn banana colored bike that I would ride and dream all my dreams.

You’ve said that as a teenager, the works of Irving Penn influenced you to become a photographer. Was that a revelation completely out of the blue or did you have a closer relationship with photography (or any other arts) before?

As I mentioned, my childhood was really quite crazy and dysfunctional. I started going down wrong paths, experimenting with drugs and other things. I was going through that time where I was wondering what this life is all about, did I have anything to offer, and was I really meant to be here.

Meanwhile, my mother would always send me to the local food market to pick things up we need for the home, mostly milk and bread and such. This particular store had a magazine rack, and I would love to go through magazine after magazine looking at the photographs. My favorite was always Sports illustrated. I loved the opening double page spread as the photograph was always so powerful.

I remember one day seeing a copy of the American Photographer. I purchased the issue, went home to my bedroom and started turning the pages when I came across two Irving Penn images. One photograph was Picasso with that big fedora on, and the second was Celeste, the wonderful French theatre actress. I had really never heard of Penn, Picasso or this actress, but because of these two powerful images I would soon know who each of them was. It was a pivotal point of my whole life. Those two photographs from Penn changed everything for me, because it was at that very moment that I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It gave me a purpose and reason to live and shine and become someone. I never did it to become famous, I just wanted to meet and interact with all kinds of different people. I never could have grasped at that time that photography would take me all over the world and that I would meet people from every walk of life. I will never forget the impact Penn had on me from the very first time I witnessed his work.

Was photography a big shift from your original plans? 

I was only 16 years old when I discovered photography. At that age, I really never thought of doing anything else. I had no other aspiration of any kind before. Sure, I’d had a few of the normal thoughts of becoming a baseball player or a racecar driver, but I’m glad I didn’t go down either of those routes because I would be looking for a job right now.

Today you are a renowned, successful photographer with many amazing projects and multiple awards and prizes behind you. What do you think contributed to your success personally? 

I think with any trade and probably more so in a competitive field like photography or professional sports, it takes a tremendous amount of dedication, passion and sacrifice. I am a self-taught photographer. I have a collection of over 1300 photography books. I would, and still do, spend hour after hour reading and viewing these books.  For me it’s probably a bit of an addiction.

I knew I wanted to be good at whatever it was I did, sort of a proof to the world that underdogs can make it. I have always spent a tremendous amount of time on personal projects which I believe elevated me to the top tier in the world of photography. I have always had this Robin Hood mentality–I steal from the rich, shooting for the big corporations and brands, to feed the poor, my personal projects.

I think if you are going to make it in this field, you have to eat, sleep, play, dream photography full time, all the time. It kind of makes me smile when I hear some youngsters fresh out of college calling themselves photographers. It takes a minimum of 10 years to even begin to understand a photographer’s life. It’s not just pushing a button; it’s a dedication of your life to something you love. I follow the Charles Burkowski quote: “Find something you love and let it kill you.

Your winning project at IPA was Africa Transgender. You have been photographing this community around the world for more than 20 years. Why did you choose this project? What were the main challenges involved?

Photographing Transgenders over the last 20 years is only one of many projects I have going on. I have always been interested in different cultures. I have been referred to as an archeological photographer, a photographer that photographs cultures.  A few I have documented and have extensive amount of work on are the people of Morocco, The Indigenous tribes of Papua New Guinea, American Bikers, Bullfighters, Blues Musicians, Boxers, The African community of black women and their hair styles, Ballet dance, and the list goes on.

The transgender community came to me originally when I was in the Philippines. I met a very beautiful community of these Transgenders that allowed me into their world.  It was then that I fell in love with these beautiful souls. I began researching and read horrific stories of abandonment, violence, and even the high rate of murder and suicide.  The empathic side of me wanted to help in any way that I could, so I began photographing them and sharing my images to the world. While I photographed them, I would listen to their stories and feel the pain and the agony of their lives.

Today I probably have close to 100 portraits that I have taken from around the world. I haven’t finished the project yet as I still have New York, Brazil, Thailand, Singapore and Japan to do. I would really love to exhibit them and maybe someday do a book and have a few great transgender writers tell their stories. If we can just get people to understand that this is a real life with real feelings, these are people that truly were born in the wrong bodies, things could change for this community for the better. Acceptance of all peoples is one of the things I truly strive for in the work I produce.

Is it easy to get these people be your subject in the project? Do you still keep in touch with any of them?

Africa was difficult but I think it is the same everywhere. It is the fear of exploitation, or the discovery of their new lives by a family member for example, or even the fear of just gathering with others and becoming a target for haters. To have a community commit to my request, I have to create trust and respect, but I also have to make them believe in the work I do.

I usually write a piece about my project and show them other portraits I have done. I also show them my website, so they can see that the work is high-end. I also always gift them a portrait of themselves and often will make donations to their communities.

After so many awards, why is this recognition from International Photography Awards (IPA) still important for you?

I believe that IPA is doing amazing work around the world to educate and bring recognition to photographers in a very honorable way. Award shows are a dime a dozen with most of them being huge moneymakers for whomever is sponsoring the awards show. IPA is a little different. The LUCIE Awards of the Lucie Foundation, which is the sister organization of IPA, is the OSCARS of the photography world. The support and recognition they bring to photographers from all around the world who have dedicated their lives to the craft is like no other foundation out there.  I know when I enter IPA that I am going against the best in the world. I get inspired when I go to the awards show at Carnegie Hall. To see Annie Leibovitz, Art Shay, Ellen Von Unsworth, Patrick Demarchelier, Duane Michaels, Mary Ellen Mark, Larry Fink and so many others receive lifetime achievement awards is just so enlightening. These are basically my heroes up there and for me its just so moving. I have been very fortunate to win the “International Photographer of the Year” twice in 2014 and 2015. It is such an honor, but it all comes down to the work. These awards will not make you the hottest and most sought out photographer in the world. You will still need to get up every morning, put your pants on the same way we all do, and hit the work hard. We are only as good as our work, and one body of work or one or two awards doesn’t make you a master. It about the love and passion you put into your work. If you do the hard work, the awards and recognition do come, but rarely are they as important as an IPA/LUCIE.

Finally, what are you interested in these days? What is in the pipeline for you? 

I still continue working hard. I don’t know if I can really even call it work anymore. It’s what I love to do, it is my life. My wife Claudie and I both love creating. I am now exhibiting all over the world. I continue to shoot my selected ad campaigns, and I also shoot TV commercials and other motion projects. I’m working on a script to a full-length movie right now and of course my dear friend John Malkovich will be the star. I am having fun producing 4 different books right now, including my retrospective, which I expect will come out in 3-4 years.  We also have family and grandkids that we dearly love. Add the traveling we are constantly doing, and you have two people that love to find a nice comfortable bed to get some rest. Photography has changed my life; it has opened my eyes and my heart. I believe it has made me a better person. The experiences have been priceless, educational and soul-fulfilling.