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FIRST-PERSON: Unexpected look back

NASHVILLE (BP) — Have you ever found yourself in a place you never dreamed you’d see again, or very carefully opened a box you’ve not look into for years? A few weeks ago I was given the very unexpected chance to have both of these experiences.

I had just received a message asking about images from the earliest days of the True Love Waits abstinence-until-marriage movement. Thinking back over the possibilities, I realized that most of those photographs were on film, and that I might be able to access the files a little quicker than most.

The deadline was only a few days away, so I headed for the archives at LifeWay Christian Resources. For two days I looked through most every frame I made during my 14 years of assignments. Scattered throughout this collection were some of the needed images, and a lot of memories.

In these files were reminders of so many relationships, places, experiences and unexpected moments. As I looked through the images, I could see my approach as a photographer evolve, just as the field itself was in the midst of its own gigantic change.

Film was the basis of most of my work at LifeWay. In fact, many early assignments were on black-and-white film with no color being used at all. Color was used only when there was a specific need. The transition into the digital and online world was slow and tedious. Like all communicators, we were doing our best to tell our stories while at the same time wrestling with the need to understand a brand new process.

The new way of capturing and moving photographs was indeed faster, but initially, using it meant accepting a sacrifice in quality. The archive provided one reminder after another of the uphill climb we all experienced. With every introduction of new equipment we hoped to see a glmpse of the quality we had left behind.

Although any technology undergoes constant refinement, it’s safe to say that what we had hoped for has definitely arrived. In fact, in the world of visual storytelling, about the only limitations are now the imagination and creativity of the photographer. More than ever before, it’s not about the camera. It’s about the one holding it.

The importance of collaboration was on display throughout the collection. In almost every assignment I could see the moment that the visual story began to come together. Seldom were these assignments done alone, but almost always in collaboration with a writer. Most of the significant photographs would not be in the archives were it not for this crucial partnership.

Before actually sitting down in the archives, my primary concern was to find the needed photographs. But once I was immersed in the material I was completely captivated by the stories behind the stories. Although the faces in those were seldom visible, in my mind’s eye they were ever-present.

During the years represented in the archived images, SBC photographers began to meet together on a regular basis. We looked at each other’s work, talked about the challenges ahead, planned, strategized and envisioned the upcoming year. We encouraged each other and became more like family than friends.

As I relived assignments and circumstances, what I learned from our times together had an impact on my way of seeing a photograph. I became much more aware of what was going on around the subject, and realized that these other layers added strength to an image.

At the end of the two-day search, some needed True Love Waits photographs had been rediscovered. But I also left downtown Nashville with a fresh reminder of the importance of relationships.

Although years have passed since going out on those assignments, the relationships are still having an impact. Whether I’m behind a camera, working with students, or spending time with my family, seeing beyond the surface will always be essential.
Jim Veneman is a freelance photographer in Jackson, Tenn., and president of the Baptist Communicators Association who formerly served as director of visual communication and assistant professor at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

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  • Jim Veneman