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Christian photographers tell of focusing on Jesus

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As the only snapshot of Jesus some people will ever see, Christian photojournalists need to realize their ministry is much more than capturing an image on film, speakers at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference reminded participating photographers.
“Every single assignment we get is a two-part assignment,” Hillery Smith Garrison said during the conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, March 26-28. “Go out knowing that there are always two reasons why you’re sent — one is that you hope what you shoot gets in the paper, but the other is most important: You may be the only piece of Jesus they see.”
Although photojournalism is a profession of instant gratification that pays the bills, added Smith Garrison, a staff photographer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Christian photographers have to show the love of Jesus even when their pictures don’t get looked at or when editors crop a vertical into a horizontal.
“How many of you have the fruits of the Spirit when nobody is even looking at your images? How can they believe you have peace when you’re biting your fingernails off?” she asked. “How can they believe you have rest that God says he will give you? How can they believe that you have a light and easy burden if you can’t handle something as simple as just not making it in the paper one day?
“All of us have a daily outreach ministry that begins when your shift does and never ends,” she said. “Even when you’re upset, even when people don’t want to hear about the Lord, you can minister without words, but walk worthy.”
A self-proclaimed photographer with an agenda, Smith Garrison said that as an African American she knows that not all black people are dying, suffering, drug-dealing people who are only redeemed after becoming better basketball players.
“People are only redeemed when they receive Jesus,” she said. One of her goals is to portray African Americans in a positive light, exemplified by her photo essays on the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and former black cowboys in the southern coastal region of Texas.
Another speaker, John White, staff photographer of the Chicago Sun-Times, acknowledged God as the source of his prize-winning images. “God allows me to see nice moments, because he knows I will share them with others,” said White, who has received more than 300 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and has captured images of Nelson Mandela, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Jesse Jackson and Muhammad Ali.
“We’re the eyes on a daily basis for humanity. We have to see through the eyes of the heart, through the fire of the soul. We have to have an intimacy with life. We can’t do that living in routine,” White said as he encouraged photographers to get out early in the morning or to change the routine of their lives.
White also advised everyone to stay “on-line with the Divine.”
“Where do we practice our Christianity if not where we are? Your responsibility is to stay connected. How? I have an audience with God every day,” he said. “I don’t have to go through a press pool or secretaries to get to him. When I leave our meeting, I’m on automatic pilot and everything that happens to me is his will.
“I don’t work for a paper. I have responsibilities there, but my allegiance is to the Creator. It is important to walk with God; most people walk ahead of him.”
Freelance photographer Gary Chapman shared of walking with God through the seasons of life.
“There is a time to devote yourself to the learning of your craft, there is a time to work hard on your family, there is a time to relax and teach and rest,” said Chapman, whose work has been published in Life, Geo and National Geographic Traveler. When the “best job in the world” was taken from him, Chapman discovered a time to be home. He and his wife began taking one or two months from their summer to take their children on mission trips, which combined with other mission endeavors have taken Chapman to more than 50 countries.
Dianne Laakso shared a similar journey. Published in Time and USA Today, Laakso was a staff photographer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when she began struggling over how she and her husband were raising their son, Joseph. He was often handed off in a car seat from his dad to his mom en route to work. After praying and hearing “Go,” Laakso said she thought maybe she was hearing “No.” She left the paper, moved back to her native Mississippi and with her husband, also a photographer, began shooting weddings with a photojournalistic style.
“I know if I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t have to say, `I didn’t have time to do this,’ or `I didn’t try that,'” she said. “Don’t be scared to follow your dreams or to take a leap of faith.”
Jim Mendenhall almost took the ultimate leap — out of a helicopter while shooting Mount St. Helens. Thinking, “If I could shoot a big story, I could be a famous photographer,” Mendenhall, now photo editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he may have risked his life at least 35 times trying to capture the best image. His harrowing experiences include covering firestorms in Malibu, Calif., a blizzard in Indiana and a volcano in Colombia.
The biggest risk, however, came in 1985 while covering a Billy Graham crusade at Anaheim Stadium in California.
“I was pretty much living life my way and I thought I was a Christian, but I wasn’t in fellowship with the body of Christ,” he said. Deciding to live God’s way, Mendenhall laid his cameras on home plate and walked to right field with others responding to Graham’s altar call.
A few years later, Mendenhall suffered a serious on-the-job injury that, along with multiple injuries sustained over years, led to two spinal surgeries and cervical fusion. Broken physically and professionally when told he could never shoot again, Mendenhall learned to walk by faith and not by sight.
“What a contradiction for a photographer,” he said. In God’s timing he landed his present desk job at the Post-Gazette.
Reflecting on the risks he has taken and the new life he has found in Christ, Mendenhall offered this lesson to the photographers: “Falling out of a helicopter,” he said, “is not nearly as bad as falling out of God’s grace.”

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  • Cindy Kerr