Peter Sanders: From rock and roll to spiritual soul
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
“In the 70s, I started to think more deeply about things and look for something more spiritual,” said Peter Sanders, a renowned photographer whose career in the mid-60s began mostly photographing musicians like Bob Dylan, The Who, The Doors, the Rolling Stones among many others.
Today, he is renowned for his prolific work photographing elements of the Muslim world, from its people to its architecture.
How he made the first step from photographer during the heyday of rock and roll to devout Muslim chronicler, began with a set of photos of the iconic Jimi Hendrix performing at his last concert at the Isle of Wight Festival before his death two weeks later.
“At the time, I was trying to get money to go to India and suddenly I got these pictures and they were worth a lot of money, so I sold them and with that money I went to India.”
Sanders travelled India for seven months studying different religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism of which he knew very little of before.
“And when I came back to the UK after having that experience, I started to carry on looking for something that would carry on that interest,” said Sanders.
He eventually found Islam, which resonated deeply with him and was given the name Abd al-Adheem.
“Now, you have to remember, it was not like now,” said the 69-year-old Londoner. “It was a very different time. People knew very little about Islam, particularly the West. There was no extremism, there were no terrorists, and it was just a religion that believed in one God. And it was what I believed in, it made sense to me. So, it was kind of a leap of faith that I made, I did not know much about it.”
Upon his return to the UK, he had discovered some of his friends had converted to Islam and others had gotten heavily into drugs and alcohol.
“So it was like a clear thing that I needed to go in that direction, even though I was not sure. And then, over a period of time, I had various dreams and things happened, and then I realised that that was what I wanted to do,” said Sanders of his decision to pursue his passion in Islam.
As he pursued his spiritual journey, he became a renowned photographer in the Muslim world. Sanders was one of the fortunate ones back in the 70s to be permitted to photograph the haj pilgrimage as it was a rare opportunity for photographers, let alone Western ones, during that time.
He also photographed Muslims in different parts of the world as well as iconic Islamic buildings and architecture, but when asked whether he missed photographing musicians, Sanders said that what he did now was an extension of his life.
“I still photograph musicians, occasionally. I photograph Yusuf Islam, Sami Yusuf – I would not do it generally as a business. It was really different from what I did during the 60s. In the 60s, people knew me, and I could just go the concert and they would let me in,” said Sanders, although he admits that he pursued his interest in rock and roll with the same curiosity about life.
“But to me, it is not that different if you look at my life, because I was interested in rock n roll, they were like poets of the time, I was trying to understand what life was. They, for me were inspiration, giving me idea and things to think about.”
In the Islamic world, he found people who devoted their lives to praying, fasting and studying, “very spiritual people, so they replaced the rock and roll stars. It was like a progression.”
Since he made the life-changing decision to convert to Islam, he uses photography as a bridge for those who can’t travel with the same freedom he does.
“So, my job is like, ‘okay you can’t go, but this is what is there if you go there.’ It’s my job,” explained Sanders.
Having been in the industry for almost 50 years, Sanders said that traveling helps keep him inspired and motivated in photography up until this day.
“For instance, this is the first time I’ve come to Sarawak, and I am looking at everything – how different the culture is, I really like that. Going to somewhere different, and understanding how the people live, what is their culture, what is their quality, what is good about their culture. I love all of that, really. I hope I can continue to do it,” said Sanders.
While travelling allows him to get a glimpse of other cultures as well as lifestyles, he loves to photograph people.
“I think human beings are amazing. I do like portraits. Whether I am a great portrait photographer, I don’t know, because I am quite shy, so it is quite hard for me. You need a certain confidence, you need to kind of engage in it. I like to observe people. So, when you have a bit that’s you, a bit that is unique, it is going to go to that photo as well,” said Sanders.
Since he is a shy person by nature, he usually asks his wife, Hafsa Sanders, to talk to his subjects while he takes their photographs.
With almost four photography books under his belt, one could never imagine a skilled photographer like him do anything else, but when asked what he would be if not a photographer, the answer could come as a surprise.
“My, wife, Hafsa and I met a woman, a great healer in Istanbul (she’s passed away since). But when we met her, she was a really interesting woman, she would look deeply into you, she looked at your tongue, she looked at your hand…”
“She did this to Hafsa and she told Hafsa you need to do something creative, and her job is like a healer. Then she looked at me and said ‘Hmm…you’re like me, you should do what I do’. So, she thinks we should do the opposite. So, I am quite interested in traditional medicine,” he said with an amused smile.
Sanders has a collection of a quarter million transparencies with which he hopes to build a photography archive in the future.
His first book ‘In The Shade of the Tree’ is now into its second reprint and gives a wonderful insight into the diversity of the Muslim cultures around the world. His second book ‘The Art of Integration, Islam in England’s green and pleasant land’, shows an alternative picture of Muslims integrated completely within British society, from Eton, Sandhurst, District Judges and the House of Lords, to supermarkets, transport workers, poets, artists and musicians.
His third book ‘Meetings with Mountains’ is the result of a 40-year project, about the extraordinary scholars and living saints that Sanders has had the privilege to meet during his 40 years of travelling. His empathy with both spiritual masters and ordinary people have opened many doors, allowing him to be the first person to photograph them.
Sanders was granted a commission by the King of Morocco’s Ministry, to document all the important mosques, madrassah and zawiyas of Morocco and was given access to the whole of Morocco over a four-year period. This archive of images will be edited to produce a series of beautiful books and an exhibition.
From September 1st until 4th, Peter Sanders was in Sarawak, Malaysia for the ‘Art of Seeing Sarawak’ program, a series held by the World Islamic Economic Forum Foundation designed to teach and instill the ability to tell a story through pictures, where the best way to learn the skill is from a professional.
The workshop was held at Pending and saw 20 participants with Sanders visiting various sites in Kuching learning to take pictures from the master himself.
For more information on Sanders’s photography, check out his website at: http://www.petersanders.co.uk/