Hailey Sadler, a DC-based photojournalist and documentary photographer, found her way to her current career through courage, following her passion, and a healthy dose of risk-taking. And while the road hasn’t always been easy, she couldn’t imagine doing things any other way.
Ever since she was a child, Hailey could be found with a camera in her hand. Photography was a way to express how she saw the world and engage with it in a deeper way. Initially, though, Hailey did not even consider it as a career option: instead, she majored in political science with an emphasis on international relations and started her career in Congress in Washington D.C., working for members on the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. Five years into her Congressional career, when she made the leap into documentary photography, Hailey felt like it was the perfect merging of her two passions - her interest in policy and international affairs with her love for visual storytelling
Her first assignment was embedding with the Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan. At that point, Hailey didn’t even know if photojournalism would be a viable career path for her, but it was one of those moments in life where she knew she had to take the leap. Now three years later, Hailey’s work explores questions around trauma, displacement, and defining home and has taken her across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, including extended periods along the border of Syria in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. Her work has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, Adobe, and more, and has been published in The Washington Post, PBS Newshour, Associated Press, and OZY, among others.
While this is undoubtedly incredibly impressive, the transition from working at a stable government job to becoming a freelance documentary photographer was anything but easy. In fact, it was quite the opposite. “To make that leap is honestly really scary, and I think there’s plenty of doubt that comes with that in-between bridging process. I’m grateful to have been raised with an entrepreneurial background, but there are still definitely those moments when you start thinking ‘Wait what am I doing? Did I just give up a really good career to do something totally crazy?’ I think it takes a lot of grace with yourself, while giving yourself space to question it and allowing for some self doubt. But if you believe in what you’re doing, then it’s worth it.”
Often, Hailey’s documentary work takes her into regions of the world that some would consider unsafe. However, while she tries to mitigate any unnecessary risks, Hailey says that it’s important to remember that “everywhere you go is someone’s home.” With that in mind, one of her top concerns is working to ensure the safety of those with whom she engages. “As someone entering a community from the outside, I consider it a huge privilege to be invited in. I also recognize that there are times when my presence can bring unwanted attention or could potentially be putting other people at risk, so I put in a lot of research, thought, care, and preparation before stepping into those places or situations. It’s a balance of logistics, research, and asking yourself the tough ethical questions because there are often times when you may not be the right person to be telling that particular story.”
While there are so many meaningful moments and experiences Hailey has gotten the opportunity to document, two projects that were particularly impactful for her was the opportunity to spend time with some of the Yazidi women who are survivors of ISIS captivity in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and growing close with Rohingya women who survived genocide in their home country of Myanmar and living as refugees in Bangladesh and the United States. Being in the presence of the strength, courage, and resilience of these women and having the opportunity to get to know them and hear their stories is a privilege and honor that Hailey says will have a deep impact on her for the rest of her life.
As meaningful as this work is, it also has the potential to be heavy and heart wrenching. As such, self-care is an important part of Hailey’s life. Sometimes easier said than done, particularly because the work can feel all-consuming, Hailey explains that she is trying to be more intentional about prioritizing activities that are restful and reenergizing in order to avoid burnout and exhaustion. She does this by spending time in nature, taking walks or practicing yoga, being with friends and family, and trying to be more intentional about making space to step away from the work.
While this wasn’t necessarily a path Hailey envisioned for herself, now that it’s all unfolded, she realizes how much sense it makes. Her background in government gives her the framework through which she approaches the issues that she documents and an appreciation for the voices that are missing from policy decision making - too often the people who are most directly impacted by the policies. There is no silver bullet when it comes to engendering positive change and photography is just one tool among many. But, Hailey hopes to continue to utilize it as a way to contribute to conversations around the refugee and force displacement crisis in particular. “I believe that the way we understand and engage with the stories of people who have experienced the trauma of conflict and displacement is going to be increasingly important in the next century of geopolitics. We have to do better,” she says. “This is critical for both policymaking and peace building in a future defined by forced migration due to conflict and climate change, but also for our collective humanity.”
Ultimately, Hailey believes in the power of story and images to build empathy and create a deeper understanding, and that’s what motivates her as she continues in her career. “My hope is to be able to look back and see that the stories I told caused people to ask questions and think differently, and also that the people who shared their stories with me felt seen and represented in a way that honored their dignity and agency.”
To keep up with Hailey's adventures, follow her on Instagram: @haileycsadler.