People & Places

Iowa City photographer adapts during pandemic, raises money for homeless

Rebecca Sanabria wins Resiliency Award for her Faces of Iowa project featuring Eastern Iowa families

Rebecca Sanabria of Iowa City assembles her backdrop stand Oct. 9 in the garage of a client in Coralville. Sanabria has
Rebecca Sanabria of Iowa City assembles her backdrop stand Oct. 9 in the garage of a client in Coralville. Sanabria has been making portraits of families on their front porches during the pandemic, in addition to her photography business. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Six years ago, Rebecca Sanabria was living in Los Angeles, working as a voice-over actor and shooting photos of celebrity friends, including Tiffani Thiessen.

When she and her husband, Dennis Michael Koch, decided in 2014 to move to Iowa City to raise their three girls close to family, Sanabria knew her career would change.

“I had to shift gears and shoot more families,” said Sanabria, 46. “I’m still doing headshots, but here it’s more for people in the corporate world versus actors. You’re still trying to get the essence of the person in front of you.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Sanabria had to cancel her regular work trips to Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas. The extrovert who thrives on connecting with her subjects and capturing candid moments at home didn’t know how she’d continue her work — and pay the bills.

Sanabria read about how homeless shelters across the nation were struggling to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks. Shelter House, an Iowa City nonprofit that serves the homeless, worked with local hotels to house people who showed symptoms in order to keep the rest of the shelter safe.

“I started thinking, ‘These people’s situation is even more fraught,’ ” Sanabria said.

A couple of Sanabria’s friends asked her if she’d considered doing porch portraits — outdoor shoots that allow for social distancing. She decided to do it, with a public service twist — donating part of the proceeds from each shoot to Shelter House. The Faces of Iowa project now has donated several thousand dollars to the nonprofit, helping pay for many nights’ stays for Iowa City homeless.

“Rebecca is incredibly talented,” said Christine Ralston, Shelter House development director. “Rather than fretting about what is happening in the world, she’s using her skills to help us.”

Most of the Faces of Iowa shoots happen in and around front doors or porches, but Sanabria has had some creative takes with one family photographed mid-jump into a pool (only get one shot with that one), peeking out windows and posing with pets, engagement rings, musical instruments and even a Queen Elizabeth cutout.

The Iowa City Area Development Group recently chose Sanabria as the winner of its new Resiliency Award for an individual. The group wanted to celebrate Johnson County businesses and people who have shown leadership, strength and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other winners were Procter & Gamble for large company, OpenLoop/Jon Lensing for small company/startup, Dream City for nonprofit and Food With Love for community project.

Sanabria still does voice-over work — she’s voiced Barbie and done work for Ford and Walmart, but is most well known for voicing “the Latina” in the Saints Row video game. And she’s resumed work trips to L.A., where she often does food or product shoots for people’s Instagram accounts or blogs.

“Advertising has moved from commercials on prime time to Instagram,” she said. “Everybody uses a professional photographer. Even if it looks more candid, they all have teams to curate their Instagram.”

But the pandemic also made Sanabria think about what comes next here in Iowa City. And what’s next is a book of Faces of Iowa portraits with profits going to the Shelter House. The book likely will come out in the spring.

“It became this community force where everybody wanted to participate,” Sanabria said. “It made me feel good, and my sense was that it made other people feel good to be part of it.”

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