NASHVILLE (BP) — Charles Stanley’s journey into photography began decades ago with a borrowed camera he had no idea how to use.
“I didn’t have a camera, and I was going on a mission trip to Haiti,” he told attendees at the 2019 Southeastern Photojournalism Conference. “My wife had the finest camera Kodak made in those days, and she said, ‘Why don’t you just take my camera?'”
With some coaching from the man seated next to him on the plane to Haiti, he learned just enough for the trip.
“I was there for about three weeks. I came home with the most incredible photos and didn’t know what I was doing most of the time.”
Stanley, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta and founder of In Touch Ministries, addressed the gathering of student and professional photojournalists after the group had presented him with an award for his “lifetime commitment of using photography to further the gospel of Christ.”
The conference, designed for Christian photojournalists to receive professional and spiritual enrichment, is in its 27th year. The Feb. 1-2 meeting was the first one held in the Southern Baptist Convention building in Nashville.
Since that long-ago Haiti trip, Stanley has become well-known for his photography, often using a photo as a sermon illustration. Books containing his work have sold thousands of copies. (See related BP story.)
For a later trip overseas, Stanley’s church took up a love offering to buy him a new Minolta camera that he used for a long time. As Stanley’s skills developed, so did his taste in cameras as well as his objective for his photography.
“Years went by, and I moved up from Minolta to Nikon to Hasselblad to today I’m at Fuji,” he said. “As I look back over the years and see how God has used [my photography], He’s opened some awesome doors of opportunity for me…. I don’t know how much you pray about your photography, but I can tell you that for me, it’s really paid off.”
The first photo Stanley ever used with a sermon was one he shot in Alaska of an eagle rising up from the water clutching a fish in its talons. After that, church members began asking to see more of his work, and he began regularly using photos as sermon illustrations. Stanley shared with conference attendees the stories of two such photos.
Walking along the beach in Charleston, S.C., “I’ll never forget what I saw,” Stanley said. “Out in the ocean … is this one tree. No leaves…. I looked at the environment, and I thought, ‘That tree is in that water, I wonder how deep? The roots have to be deep.’ And I think about all the storms that have hit that beach. All the rain, all the sleet, all the hail. And the two words that came to my mind are ‘still standing.’
“And that message has made a tremendous difference in a lot of people’s lives. And I just showed it one Sunday. And all I said was ‘still standing.'”
While in Zanzibar in Africa, Stanley said he felt impressed to take a photo of a large, old sailboat. “There was a fellow working on [the boat],” Stanley said. “It’s pretty beat up.”
“One Sunday, I showed [the photo]. I’ve forgotten what the message was, but I’ll never forget this. At the end of the message, I said to the congregation, ‘When he finishes working on it, that old boat will sail again.’ That’s all I said.”
Two weeks later, Stanley and a colleague were eating at a restaurant when a waitress came and sat down at their table.
“I want to tell you something,” she said. “I’m divorced. My husband’s left me in a mess. Physically, I’m not doing well. My job’s not doing well. I just took this job as a waitress. I’d just about given up. And one Sunday, I came to church. I never had been before. They sat me on the second row. I listened to you. When you came to the end, and you showed that sailboat, and you made the statement, ‘That old boat will sail again.’ God spoke to my heart and said, ‘You’ll sail again. You’ll come out of this. I’m gonna bring you out of this. Don’t give up, trust me.'”
“I can preach for 50 minutes,” Stanley said. “But if I show you something on a big screen that says something about that, you may forget what I said, but you will not forget what you saw. And then God will connect the two. You have an awesome opportunity to bear witness for the Lord without preaching to anybody.”
Stanley encouraged the photojournalists to find more than monetary value in their work.
“I know you can’t make a living just doing photography for fun,” he said. “But one thing is certain … if you do it, and you pursue it, and part of your pursuit is to bear testimony of almighty God, there’s no telling what He’ll do. He’ll open up doors of opportunity. You can’t figure them out.”
“I preach the Gospel around the world every week,” he said. “There’s not a place where I can’t be found. And every time I have an opportunity, I put a photo on the screen, and just say a little bit. My goal isn’t to sell photos. My goal is to send a message that God is interested in you.”