Meet Susan Sidebottom, the photographer who is putting a face on the affordable housing crisis in Sarasota. A humanistic artist who aims to capture the relationship between people and their circumstances, Sidebottom has been recognized for her photos depicting those who are struggling, such as the homebound elderly and the homeless population. In her photo essay, “Suspended in the Balance” she focused her lens on food insecurity in Iowa, trying to show the emotional trauma that occurs in people who are deprived of the basic necessities of living. When the Gulf Coast Community Foundation decided to shine a light on the affordable housing crisis in Sarasota County, they knew Sidebottom would be the perfect storyteller. Originally from North Carolina, Sidebottom, a mother of four now lives in New Jersey. Always searching for places where there is a real diversity of thought and experience, she was drawn to Sarasota and did not hesitate when the Gulf Coast Community Foundation offered to sponsor her exhibit.

'A Place In The Sun' is on display at Art Center Sarasota, 707 N Tamiami Trl. through April 30. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibit, donated from Sidebottom and Art Center Sarasota


A housing crisis is not usually top of mind when thinking about Sarasota with its luxury homes and modern buildings. But finding an affordable place to live in this area is a challenge that so many people face on a daily basis. According to Jon Thaxton, Senior Vice President for Community Investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, there are 172,600 households in Sarasota County. Of those, over 60,000, greater than 40%, are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, which means that every month, 60,000 households have to not pay a bill and they have to decide what bill they’re not going to pay. “The people that are impacted the greatest are our service workforce, people working near and just above minimum wage,” says Thaxton. “And of course that service workforce is many tens of thousands in numbers and they are the individuals that ensure the quality of life that we enjoy in Sarasota. They are the ones that are cleaning the floors, bussing the tables, washing the dishes, cleaning our pools and mowing our lawns. So without them, we don’t have the same quality of life. We have to all agree as a community that affordable housing for our workforce is a necessity. It’s not a luxury anymore. It is no longer just a moral imperative. It is an economic driving force.”

Susan Sidebottom wanted to make these challenges more personable by telling individual stories through photographs. Her new exhibit, “A Place in the Sun” at Art Center Sarasota features 25 photographs of real people in the area who are struggling with or lack of affordable housing and basic needs. Her goal is to offer a deeper understanding of the connection between people and their circumstances.

“I hope that people come and they have an emotional response to the work. You can’t predict what that’s going to be because it’ll be different for everyone, depending on their own personal experiences,” she says. “But I hope that they begin to think about the people that they’re looking at and maybe think…is my dry cleaner one of these people? Is the person serving me at a restaurant one of these people? And then they leave and they start thinking about how they can be part of the solution.”

With all of her photos, Sidebottom focuses on the person and their story and thinks about how she can best represent them holistically, not just the challenge they’re experiencing right at that moment. “I try to learn who they are and how I can photograph them in a place of grace and dignity so that other people can see them that way too,” she says. “It’s interesting, because one of the things I do is provide my subjects with a photograph or two after I’ve taken pictures of them. I’ve been told that it’s really transformative because they don’t see themselves in this way. When you are so down and when you’re working so hard and everything you do is a challenge, it’s hard to see yourself as this person who is beautiful and still, and thoughtful and kind.”

The faces in the portraits might be somewhat surprising because they look like the people you see everyday. They’re young and they’re old. They’re black, white and they’re brown. And they’re all around us with nowhere to go. Even with federal money that came as assistance from the pandemic, affordable housing has not been readily available. As a result, people have been staying in hotel rooms until something more permanent becomes available. And what happens when that federal money runs out?  “That’s a very good question,” says Thaxton. “And it’s one we ask ourselves all the time.”