A Vision of Peace Through the Camera Lens

Peace can be made in many ways. Some people make peace with their voices, by speaking out. Some make it with their hands, by building bridges or helping victims of natural disasters. Michael Collopy ’82 has made his contribution to peace with his camera, and his heart. A nationally known portrait photographer, he has captured the images of an unlikely mix of celebrities, politicians and human rights activists over the years. The Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bono, Bill Clinton and hundreds of the most notable people of our time have all sat before Collopy’s camera.

But he is probably best known as the creator of Works of Love Are Works of Peace, a photographic journal that grew out of his 15-year friendship with Mother Teresa, and Architects of Peace: Visions of Hope in Words and Images, a collection of 75 of his portraits of “peacemakers,” including 16 Nobel Peace Prize winners and dozens of others who have contributed in some way to a more peaceful and just world.

From the time Collopy met Mother Teresa in 1982, she was an inspiration to the photographer, who was impressed with her willingness to accept all people for who they are.

Collopy didn’t set out to photograph peacemakers. Instead, he was initially drawn to pop stars. In fact, he was so “star-struck,” in his own words, that while he was still a student he took a job as an usher at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos just to be around the hottest pop and Motown singers of the day.

And it was there that he met one of the two people who would most strongly shape his career — Frank Sinatra. Collopy, who was just a kid, really, was competing with a more experienced photographer to take pictures of Sinatra before he went onstage. The singer’s advisers told him to go with the pro, but Sinatra said, in his nonchalant style, “Give the kid a chance.” Over the next 10 years, Collopy photographed Sinatra dozens of times, and the two became friends. “He either loved you or he hated you. There was no gray area with Mr. S.,” Collopy said. He added, jokingly: “We had a great relationship, but I always felt like I was one bad picture away from ending up in the bay with cement shoes.”

Through Sinatra and the Circle Star Theatre, Collopy met and photographed many of the big stars of the day and built an impressive portfolio: John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Fats Domino. More importantly, he said, “as a shy 20-year-old, I learned to adapt to all sorts of personalities — including some big egos.”

By the time he was a senior at Saint Mary’s, he had already mounted his first photo exhibition — at the College’s library — with portraits of Ansel Adams, Michael Douglas, O.J. Simpson and Sophia Loren, among others. Being around such big stars at a young age prepared him well for a career photographing some of the most recognizable people of our age, including five U.S. presidents.

“I’ve never been intimidated by anybody not even Sinatra or the president — and I hope that comes through in the photos,” he said.  It does. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Collopy’s portraits is the way they seem to allow the viewer to see right into the person’s soul.  “I want to give the viewer the sense of being there with them, looking into their eyes,” he said. 

Collopy’s fascination with people and his desire to capture their essence on film began early, even before he graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 1982, when he fell in love with the stark black-and-white photography of Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon. What he did next says a lot about how Collopy has become such a success.

“I called 411 to see if Ansel Adams was listed in the phone directory,” he recalled. Sure enough, he was, and the photographic legend invited the young student to his home. Not long afterward, Collopy flew to New York to meet with Avedon, who told him: “Look through the camera, not from behind the camera. It forces you to have a conversation with the person you’re photographing.”

Collopy emerged from the meeting inspired to build a career as a portrait photographer. “I would never have been happy being a ‘fly on the wall’ photographer,” said Collopy. “I wanted to be one-on-one and get to know my subjects.” These days, the gregarious Collopy is completely at home in the world of celebrity. He hangs out with Paul McCartney whenever the former Beatle is in town. And he has a running basketball match going with George Clooney. They’ve even put up their homes as collateral. “If I win, I get his home in Lake Como,” Collopy said with a laugh.

He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he values people for who they are, not for their outward fame. In fact, when he was asked at a recent speaking engagement who he’d most like to go on a camping trip with, he chose Frank Sinatra and, after a moment’s thought, Mother Teresa. No doubt, there are very few people in the world who would mention Sinatra and Mother Teresa in the same breath, but Collopy had his reasons.

“I miss Frank Sinatra because he had so many great stories,” he said, “and Mother Teresa had a great sense of humor” and would be helpful around camp because “she was extremely handy.”

It was a chance meeting with Mother Teresa in 1982 that turned out to be the other pivotal event in Collopy’s life.

He had gone to Saint Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco to hear her speak and was making his way through the basement up to his seat at the front of the church when he turned a corner and saw Mother Teresa directly in front of him. She approached him and handed him a business card with her name on it that said: “The fruit of love is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love and the fruit of love is service.”

So began their long, close friendship. Over the next 15 years, he “traveled around the world with her a couple of times,” photographing her as she carried out her work. Although she didn’t care a bit about fame, she recognized that a certain amount would promote her efforts to help the poor. “She joked that she had a deal with God: For every picture taken, a soul was released from purgatory.”

In 1996, Collopy published a selection of the photos in Works of Love Are Works of Peace — Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionaries of Charity.

Over the years, he learned a lot from Mother Teresa, he said. One day, as they were driving around, he mentioned that she never seemed to judge anyone. She replied: “I never judge anybody because it doesn’t allow the time to love them.”

While he continued to photograph the famous — and does to this day — over time Collopy began to turn his lens on a different kind of subject:            superstars of peace, you might say. He had always had an interest in social justice, which was cultivated, he said, by his mother and his father, George Collopy, a well-known graphic artist who was a 1946 graduate of Saint Mary’s. He was inspired to act on that impulse after hearing a speech by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Speaking at a State of the World Forum in San Francisco in 1996, she asked, “How can we leave our children a better world?”

Collopy, who has two sons with his wife, Alma, took the message to heart. He asked himself: How can I make a difference with my work? And he conceived of an ambitious project to photograph Nobel Peace Prize laureates and others around the world who were paving the way for peace. He was tireless in his pursuit of peacemakers.

One year, he said, he logged 200,000 miles as he traveled the globe photographing his subjects. Remarkably, he never had any trouble getting access. “These celebrated people are just like us,” he said. “They don’t see themselves as heroes.”

The project culminated in the book, Architects of Peace: Visions of Hope in Words and Images, which was published in 2000. Photos from the project are now permanently exhibited at the National Civil Rights Museum, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and Santa Clara University, among other places.

Along the way, he met some remarkable people, including such well-known Nobel peace laureates as Nelson Mandela, Shimon Peres, Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter and less well-known ones like Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingshen.  The book also includes some less obvious choices, such as Colin Powell and Carlos Santana. 

The only person he was a little daunted by was the Dalai Lama. But the Buddhist monk quickly put Collopy at ease by pretending to primp for the camera, playfully stroking his bald head and asking, with that famous twinkle in his eye, “How does my hair look?”

For the book, Collopy asked each of his subjects to contribute a statement about peace. The result is a book of great beauty and wisdom. Collopy, who co-founded the Architects of Peace Foundation in 2008 to promote peace studies, is now working on a second volume in the series. Among others, it will include 33 Nobel Peace Prize winners, but not everyone in it will be famous.

“I’m interested in people who are making a mark and leaving a legacy,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a celebrity. Each of us can do something. Each of us is of incredible worth.”

After all the miles and all the photo sessions, Collopy learned a lot from staring through the lens into the eyes and souls of these visionaries. The common bond in all their writings and their conversations is “the virtue of forgiveness,” Collopy said. But for him, the greatest lesson he has learned is that “it’s important to recognize the face of God in each of us.”