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FIRST-PERSON: Don Rutledge’s legacy

TEMPLE, Texas (BP)–When First Baptist Church of Temple, Texas, opened its Great Commission Gallery with an exhibit of Don Rutledge’s photography, I thought how fitting.

It is appropriate that Don’s photographs be the first exhibited in a gallery bearing such a name. For two generations his elegant images and visual storytelling have shaped the way Southern Baptists see their world and much of what they know about missions.

During the 10 years Don spent at the North American Mission Board and the 15 years he was at the International Mission Board, his vision did much to influence the look of their publications. Home Missions Magazine, MissionsUSA and theCommission became internationally recognized in both religious and secular arenas for their use of photography and the visual impact of their storytelling. Though he retired in 1996, he was still doing photography for the Black Star photo agency and the IMB up until two years ago when a stroke forced him to quit taking assignments.

While he was never an editor, leadership is more a function of influence than title. And evidence of Don’s influence is seen not just in the publications he served, but in the lives he has touched. I was reminded of this again at the gallery opening on Nov. 20. There is a whole cadre of photographers that Don has nurtured and encouraged through the years. No one knows how many, but four of us showed up at the opening; for three of us, it was the first time we met.

People sought him out, and he sought them. I remember studying his work long before I met him. I was struggling with my calling, how I was going to express it and where it was going to be. I would look at his work and think: That’s what I want to do. Later, when he saw some of my work, he wrote me a note telling me that he liked it. I soon learned he is one of the most approachable and giving men I have ever met. I once sent him a project I was working on to critique and he sent it on to the director of photography at National Geographic. That’s just Don.

I finally got to work with Don the last year he was at the IMB. I watched when beginning photographers would come to see him and note the time he would spend with them. To be honest, some didn’t evidence much promise and I would wonder at the time he gave them. But later, some of them would come back with some rather elegant work. The thing I strive to carry away from Don is never to step on someone’s dream. There are far too many people willing to do that for us, and you never know what or who someone will become.

His son, Mark, who is an IMB missionary in Haiti, tells about going to conferences with Don where internationally known photographers would approach him. They were men and women who had published well-received books, won prestigious awards, and they were worried whether or not they had it in them do something like that again. Don would talk with them and encourage them. He later told Mark there are a lot of ups and downs in this business and we need to encourage one another. How true.

Strolling among Don’s images, the signature of his lifetime, I thought about his legacy. It would be fitting enough if he were remembered for them alone. But his legacy extends far beyond. There is that cadre of photographers, writers, designers and editors he has nurtured, mentored, invested himself in, who like him embrace the Great Commission and will carry his influence long after he is gone. And that is a fitting legacy indeed.
Bill Bangham is director of photography at the International Mission Board and a former editor at MissionsUSA and theCommission.

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  • Bill Bangham