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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Photographer-therapist brings light to women, both young and older

Cathy Lander-Goldberg. Photo by Bill Motchan

In a way, Cathy Lander-Goldberg is like an Unsung Heroes whisperer. She has an uncanny ability to discover people, primarily women, who truly are courageous, resilient and inspiring, but who probably would have gone unnoticed had she not identified them, taken their photograph and encouraged them to tell their story in their own words.

Lander-Goldberg, 60, grew up in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in photojournalism. After college, she worked for a while in the corporate sector, doing photography and some writing, and freelanced as a photographer for St. Louis Magazine and other local publications.

“I did a lot of corporate gigs that didn’t take up that much time,” she explained. “I was driving by Edgewood Children’s Center in Webster Groves one day and it hit me: That might be a cool place to volunteer. I went in thinking about volunteering, but when they heard I was a photographer, they asked if I wanted to do some photography with the kids.”

Lander-Goldberg started working with adolescent girls at Edgewood, which provided support and services to students with severe emotional and/or behavioral challenges. She worked with them after school, having them take pictures and then learning how to develop them.

“What I noticed was that they would start talking in the darkroom much more than they did outside,” said Lander-Goldberg, who attends Congregation Temple Israel. “To them, it was a cozy, safe place where they felt comfortable speaking freely.”

She spoke of one young woman who had hardly uttered a word but began opening up and sharing thoughts inside the darkroom. 

“She started gaining confidence and self-esteem through her photographs, and began talking much more,” said Lander-Goldberg. “I thought, this is pretty amazing. So I actually went to Washington University to research photography and psychology and phototherapy. But what came back was phototherapy for skin conditions.”

After some digging, Lander-Goldberg landed on an article about Judy Weiser, who founded the PhotoTherapy Center in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early 1980s. There, Weiser trained professionals to use photography and personal snapshots as tools to help clients during therapy sessions. Lander-Goldberg attended one of Weiser’s workshops in Kansas City and still keeps in touch with her decades later. 

Armed with cameras, enthusiasm and an inspiring idea, Lander-Goldberg started taking photos in the early 1990s of a diverse group of young women from their teens through early 20s, each of whom was grappling with life challenges including  physical disabilities, mental illness, immigration issues, homosexuality, adoption, alienation or abandonment, school problems, abusive relationships or violence. 

“I love hearing people’s stories and giving them a voice and letting them tell their own stories because a lot of times nobody ever asks,” Lander-Goldberg said. “Everything about this project was really to give advice, from the teenagers. I figured other teenagers would listen to another teen more than an adult.”

In 1996, she curated “Resilient Souls: Young Women’s Portraits and Words,” an exhibit featuring about 20 of her black-and-white portraits along with writings by these young women chronicling the hardships and traumas they overcame or were dealing with. The exhibition opened in St. Louis at COCA and traveled around the country.

“I went to that exhibit and met some of those young women and let me tell you, it changed my life,” said Ann Mandelstamm, a retired high school English teacher who taught Lander-Goldberg when she attended Ladue. The two became friends when Lander-Goldberg reached out after she graduated.

“Their stories weren’t the kind that anyone was talking about back then,” Mandelstamm said. “I read all of them. I remember their names and pictures. They stayed with me, that’s how impactful the exhibition was.”

Eventually, Lander-Goldberg got her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in 2003. She works three days a week as a clinical social worker at the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute where she specializes in eating disorders, self-harm, infertility, depression and loss with adolescents through older adults.

“I figured if I was going to be working with adolescent girls, I should learn something about eating disorders because that might come up,” said Lander-Goldberg, who incorporates photography, journaling and other expressive art therapies into her work with clients. 

She also published “Explorations: A Girl’s Guide to Self-Discovery through Photography, Writing and Drawing,” designed to empower girls ages 9 to 15 as they build self-awareness through creative activities such as drawing or taking pictures of their truest selves, setting meaningful goals, recording their memories through pictures and more.

As friend Joy Seltzer points out, “Networking is one of Cathy’s passions. Not in a business sense but she loves creating community and connections to encourage people to share their dreams and strengths to create their best lives.”

Given that propensity, it should come as no surprise that Lander-Goldberg decided to reconnect with as many of the young women she photographed in 1996 to see how they were faring 20 years later. 

“As I aged, my interest in finding them piqued. I just wanted to know what happened to them and see how they were doing,” she said, noting that this time around, she was able to use Facebook, Google and social media to help her search. “I found 18 or 19 of them. One woman from Los Angeles I just couldn’t find. Another one, I tracked down through her sister who told me she had passed away from a heart issue.”

When the update exhibition opened at Maryville University in 2016, Mandelstamm made sure to see it. She couldn’t wait to reunite with the women “whom I never would have known otherwise” had she not been introduced through Lander-Goldberg’s work.

“I was so moved by their stories and what they were able to accomplish in 20 years,” Mandelstamm said. “I could go on for hours about these women. I feel like my life is richer for knowing them, and it’s all because of Cathy.”

More recently, Lander-Goldberg turned her attention — and her lens — to women in their upper 70s and beyond for an exhibit called “Wise Women … Resilient Lives.” She worked together with each of 14 women to create a current portrait that best reflected them and juxtaposed it with a younger one they provided.

“This was my pandemic project, which I began right after my mother died,” Lander-Goldberg said. “My goal was to honor and celebrate these experienced older women, break down stereotypes and have each share their wisdom and how they keep finding joy and purpose despite the challenges that come with aging.”

Arlen Chaleff, 82, named a 2021 Unsung Hero for her decades of dedication to end the stigma of mental illness, was one of the women Lander-Goldberg tapped for the project. 

“She gave me the motivation to continue my outreach and to show others the fulfillment I have found in the aging process,” Chaleff said.

Mandelstamm, 84, also participated, though a bit reluctantly at first, explaining she doesn’t like to get her picture taken. She eventually acquiesced because of Lander-Goldberg’s ability to make her subjects feel so comfortable.

“It’s such a beautiful project but I’m kind of embarrassed to be in it because I don’t consider myself a wise woman,” Mandelstamm said. “I just consider myself freer and a freer spirit as I get older because nobody pays any attention to older women. It’s true. We can get into all kinds of mischief, and nobody pays attention. It’s great. I love it.”

Not nobody. Certainly not Cathy Lander-Goldberg.

Cathy Lander-Goldberg

Age: 60

Home: Creve Coeur

Family: Married to Joel Goldberg, and they have a daughter, Danielle, 23

Fun fact: She admits to having a pickleball addiction. She tries to play at least three times a week.

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