Who would have guessed that the page one photo of those smiling Iraqi school children would have attracted so much attention, both appreciative and angry. Clearly, it touched a lot of readers. As President Bush inched our nation closer to war, I chose the January-February front page photo and story to remind readers of the innocent children who would suffer if our armed forces attacked Iraq. After all, the best photos take us deeper. They give us perspective. Sometimes they even change attitudes and minds.
This value of good photography was lifted up at a conference I attended last month called "Photojournalism: A Christian Perspective," held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. You could say that good photographs help us refocus, one speaker said. They help us reconsider what is important in our relationships.
Nearly two years ago United Church News changed to a new format, with the front page featuring one large photo and one prominent, UCC-related, "good news" story, a story and photo that we hoped would inspire readers and lift up Christian values such as faith or hope, joy or peace, transformation or forgiveness. We wanted them to be attention-grabbing, memory-sticking, thoughtprovoking, tell-your-neighbor-about kinds of stories and photos. At that time, one reader wrote me to say it was a great idea, but she doubted that we could keep up the quality of photography needed to meet the standard we had set.
Flipping through the file of newspapers from the past two years, I think we have maintained our standard. As Steven G. Smith, a staff photographer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, told the 225 of us at this 11th annual conference, "Being a Christian allows you to look at things differently, whether you're a photographer or not." But, he added, so does a good photograph. Great pictures tell great stories, said another speaker. I immediately thought of the front page photo last year showing all those bald heads at Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn. There, church members had supported their pastor by shaving off their hair when she lost hers due to chemotherapy.
The conference lifted up many values that good photography and Christian living hold in common. Smith told of photographing an older woman, then getting stopped by her as he was ready to leave. "Young man," she said, "you have a very great responsibility. You have a very powerful tool in your hand, a camera. Use it wisely." Besides this sense of stewardship, Smith lifted up the value of a positive attitude, of seeing yourself as not just a person on a staff but as a member of a team, of taking both good and boring assignments in stride, and of staying focused and not settling for a photo that you thought might be "good enough" when you still had time to try for a better one.
Do you want to be a great photographer? asked former National Geographic photographer Larry Nighswander. If so, he said, then you need people skills, a positive attitude, reliability, journalism skills, news judgment and desire, which he defined as "fire in the gut."
"We all need to hear the echoes of God's goodness," said Vivian Padilla-Chapman in kicking off the conference. She was talking about viewing the photographs we take, but she also meant viewing the lives that we live.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.