Joseph Sohm

“Visions of America”: Behind the Camera with Joseph Sohm

How do you photograph an idea? More specifically, how do you photograph democracy?

If you’re Joseph Sohm, you spend most of your adult life photographing America — its people and places, its triumphs and tragedies, and, most of all, its unparalleled diversity and unbreakable spirit.

And if you do it well, you produce a body of work that, for four decades, has become a world-renowned testament to a country where democracy has endured, and been tested, for nearly 250 years.

More than a photographer, Joseph Sohm is a student and teacher of America past, present and future. Based near Ojai, this former U.S. history teacher has celebrated America and its spirit through his stunning photographs and heartfelt essays published in best-selling books, leading magazines and newspapers (from National Geographic to The New York Times), broadcast on major television networks, and included in feature films.

His skills have been sought and employed by presidents from Carter to Biden, and his images have been enjoyed by viewers worldwide. There isn’t a photo service or agency anywhere, seemingly, that doesn’t offer photos by Joseph Sohm.

Nor is it exaggerating to say that, at any given moment, someone, somewhere in the world is using and publishing images of America by Joseph Sohm. “I never know where and when they’ll be published,” says Joe, “but I’ve been able to make a career of it.”

A representation of that career will be on display January 27 and 28, 2024, when New West Symphony performs Joe Sohm’s “Visions of America,” as part of its “Fascinating Rhythms” program. With music and songs by award-winning composer Roger Kellaway and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the 2024 version of “Visions of America” will be an updated version of the January 2013 program that New West Symphony performed before record audiences, directed by Marcelo Lehninger.

At 30 minutes rather than 60, it is also a compressed version of the original, with digital, time-lapse, live-action and drone-view images not possible when Joe conceived the project in the 1980s. But its goal and spirit remain the same.

“My primary goal is to lift people up,” says Joe, “with beautiful music combined with spectacular imagery of us feeling good. That’s the America I am trying to capture, and to illustrate in some way the democracy, the glue that connects us all and is what made America truly great.”

Fittingly, the creation of “Visions of America” represents a symphony, or certainly a convergence, of what Joe calls the three “sections” of his adult life.

—There is Mr. Sohm, U.S. history teacher, who left that career relatively early because, he admits, “I was actually more interested in history than in teaching.”

—There is Joe Sohm, bass player in a rock band while in his early 20s, who created a multimedia show focusing on space travel and took “special effects” photos to accompany the band’s music.

—And there is Joseph Sohm, photographer, who was drawn to the camera by the artistic appeal of photography and the ability “to do it by myself, without the band politics.”

“And,” he says, “it evolved into an opportunity of unlimited travel and adventure.”

He photographed both people and places that he felt represented who and what America was all about. Before long, he had connected with photo agencies in New York to represent, license and sell his images to magazines, publishers and broadcast companies nationally and worldwide.

Given his background and passion for America, history, and the arts, “Visions of America” was almost inevitable. “Putting images to music, either rock or jazz or classical, has always appealed to me,” he says.

In 1987, Joe was contracted by the city of Philadelphia to produce a multimedia show using his photos for a bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution. Over time, Sohm’s skills were employed by government and private agencies and organizations, including NBC’s “Concert for America” on September 11, 2002, in memory of 9/11/2001.

Then Joe connected with Kellaway, his friend and fellow Ojaian, to create a 60-minute “photo-symphony” with songs by the Bergmans. In January 2009, “Visions of America” premiered at Kimmel Center-Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, with vocals by Patti Austin and narration by Clint Eastwood.

“And it continues to evolve,” says Joe. “It’s about making Americans feel better about America. This country’s founding represented a paradigm shift for humanity, and we who have lived here have been blessed with so many opportunities not just for our own benefit, but to do something good for the world.”

Which is why “Visions” focuses on the positive rather than the political side of America. Yes, there are political images and figures (from Joe’s extensive presidential photo collection), but they are no more significant a part of “Visions” than the everyday people of all ages from all 50 states and the activities in which they engage, from work to play to helping those in need.

“I show the problems we face, like homelessness and climate change,” says Joe, “but I also show solutions.”

Combined with images of the skylines and landscapes, the small towns and big cities that comprise this country, “Visions” remains relevant, and timeless.

“That single question — How do you photograph democracy? — is what propels much of my journey,” says Joe. “You can look at a landscape of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon and marvel at it. But put them together with the people who live and work here, and set it to music and story, and those pieces become a mosaic that reveals so much more about who we are. For every single note and word in ‘Visions,’ I probably have a thousand images to choose from. And it really is an endless journey, to capture those pieces and tell that story which is always evolving.”

Moving forward, Joe anticipates one more year of photography as he targets 2026, the 250-year anniversary of America’s founding. “And then it’s translating a lifetime of shooting into several projects — book, TV, music, public speaking,” he notes.

Before that, however, comes the January 2024 presentation of “Visions” with New West  Symphony, with whom Joe most recently collaborated in February 2022 in “Our American Roots,” conducted by Artistic and Music Director Michael Christie. Fitting, then, that 11 years after the West Coast premiere of “Visions,” Joseph Sohm and New West Symphony are reunited for a much-welcomed encore.

“We have great affection for New West Symphony,” says Joe, “and we appreciate the opportunities they offer us. And Michael Christie is a joy to work with. In this type of presentation, it’s always a challenge to keep the images and music in synch, but Michael is able to keep the music in perfect synch with the image track without using elaborate technology. So I look forward to working with New West again.”



American History teacher turned Photographer-Author-Public Speaker Joseph Sohm is both student and teacher of America’s past, present and future. He conceived “Visions of America” ™ as an on-going multi-media project dedicated to capturing the American spirit in print and multi-media presentations. Spanning thirty years, Sohm has traveled and photographed all 50-states. Images from his “Visions of America” collection are published 50,000 times worldwide a year and 500,000 times over his lifetime, through his international photo agencies Getty Images, Corbis, Shutterstock, etc. His contribution to this concert is a collage of images depicting holiday celebrations around the country and gorgeous American landscapes set to music by Tchaikovsky.  Visit for more information about the artist.