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Christian photojournalists exposed to the big picture

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Twenty-three years ago in a hospital bed, photographer Bill Fortney spent three days awaiting the results of cancer tests. While many thoughts ran through his mind, it was what was absent from his mind that changed his life.

“Do you know what is the one thing I did not think about one time during those three days?” Fortney asked during his presentation at the 2004 Southwestern Photojournalism Conference on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary March 5. “Becoming a famous photographer. In those three days … I got the wakeup call.”

Fortney explained to a crowd of more than 250 at the three-day conference at the Fort Worth, Texas, seminary that up to that moment, becoming a famous photographer had taken priority over his relationships with his wife and children, his friends and even with God.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive to be the best photographer you can be. You should,” he said. “But that can’t be the number one thing in your life, because if it is, you’re going nowhere.”

Today, Fortney is regarded as one of the premier nature photographers in America. With more than 33 years of professional photography experience, his books, “America from 500 Feet,” “The Nature of America” and “Bill Fortney’s Great Photography Workshop!” have all been bestsellers. Fortney recently joined Nikon Corporation as its professional service representative for the national nature market.

But all of his successes, Fortney asserted, came only after he gave up on the narrow goal of being famous and instead focused on serving God.

“Everything that I had been striving for before [getting cancer] started to happen,” he said. “I got it all when I quit trying to get it.”

One of his dreams since early childhood had been to be an airplane pilot. In 2000, he and his son, Wesley, crossed the country taking photographs from 500 feet above the ground in an ultra-light airplane. They published their visual experience in their book America from 500 Feet.

“If I could go back and erase that cancer experience from my life, I wouldn’t do it,” Fortney said. “I’ve had 23 years that I would have never had, and my life is better than I ever dreamed it could be.”

Anacleto Rapping, a Los Angeles Times photographer, also emphasized that greater success comes from striving to glorify God first and resisting the temptation to be proud.

“Can you glorify God by being the best photojournalist you can be? Absolutely,” he said. “If that is your calling, [then] be the best photojournalist, or the best designer or the best interior photographer. … If that is what God is calling you to, do your best for God and he is going to bring you opportunities to glorify Him within that.”

Rachel LaCour Niesen said she has learned to see how God’s calling to ministry can be expressed through photography beginning with her first photojournalism conference several years ago. The conference is for “those who believe photojournalism to be a calling and the act of bearing witness to be important,” according to conference organizers.

“I have discovered that photography itself is not a direct calling,” said Niesen, a speaker at the conference. “It is only a tool to use to communicate your calling, which is from God. The photographs are not the end result. They are paving stones on a lifelong journey that all of us are in various stages of.”

Niesen and her husband, Andrew, run their own photography business, Lacour-Niesen Visuals. She told participants to seek out their calling, but cautioned that there must be balance. Participants at the conference were given note cards in which they were asked to write on one side three things they are passionate about photographing. Later, Niesen asked them to write three things on the other side that they are passionate about that have nothing to do with photography.

“For a long time, the only side of my card that was filled out was my passion for storytelling … the other side of my card was blank,” she said. “If I am completely focused on photojournalism, I am probably neglecting other vital aspects of my journey. Photography is only a tool for living or personal calling. We must consider how to create balance in our lives.”

The photojournalism conference also featured Andrew Niesen, Tara Patty, Gary Russ, Greg Breeding and Barry Gutierrez who won the Pulitzer Prize along with a team of photographers for their coverage of the Colorado wildfires last summer.

Writer and photographer Ron Londen has attended every conference since it began in 1992. He was the first conference’s first speaker, and has spoken a total of four times over the years. He is also one of the original members of the Christians in Photojournalism ministry, which supports the conference.

“That first event was just such a phenomenal event that we knew we were really on to something,” Londen said. “It was so heartfelt and every speaker was sharing from their heart a different aspect of their Christian walk and how it relates to photography.”

Heather Phillips, a student at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., came to the 2004 conference for the first time and noted the benefits she discovered.

“It makes you think and it makes you realize that it’s not just about you and your images,” she said of the conference. “It’s about presenting it to the world and also about doing your best for God.”

The 2005 Southwestern Photojournalism Conference is scheduled for Feb. 25-27. More information will be available as the conference draws nearer at www.swpjc.org. The conference is annually hosted by Southwestern Seminary and supported by Christians in Photojournalism.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PHOTGRAPHER’S VIEW and TAKING A LOOK.

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  • Lauri Arnold