5 Lessons on Missions Photography from a Pro

When I was first asked to come up with just 5 lessons that I have learned over my years of involvement in missions media, I thought that it would be next to impossible to limit myself to just five. However, after a few minutes pondering with a cuppa tea in hand, I realized that it was in fact quite an easy request to answer.

1) Let go and let God!

There are two aspects to this statement.

Firstly in all the trips I have done over the last 25 years, I have yet to NOT have a close encounter with God. By that I mean, on each and every trip I have ever done, God has taken hold of an aspect of my life, my faith etc., and turned it upside, challenged it, pulled it apart and set me right on it. While hard at times, I do look forward to seeing what God has in store for me. By being out of your comfort zone in a hard place doing his work, makes you ripe for Him to mould you for what He has planned for you. So be prepared to let go and to let God take hold of those things in your life.

The second aspect of this is to be prepared to let go of all your planning, schedules and time frames. In most developing nations, time and plans have almost no meaning or value, so be prepared to sit and wait for people to arrive, to have plans change or cancelled altogether, or to turn up to a place only to find it was as expected or that the person you had gone to see was in fact somewhere else. Let go and let God be in charge, when you do you will often find you are in a better place physically, spiritually and literally to get a story / images that showcases God at work or His people in action.

Team members from PENZ2012 pose at One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand.

Mark Jackson with students from the 2012 New Zealand Experience team in Auckland, New Zealand

2) Be strategic in what you shoot and the stories you tell.

It is easy to walk out the door and take images when out on the mission field. There are so many great things to take images of and you may in fact become overwhelmed with the range of image possibilities that you encounter each day. There are so many options that most people do one of two thing. They either go shutter crazy and shoot off 5000 images an hour, or they take only a handful in the entire day.

Over 90% of the images people shoot never end up been used in any way. That is they never get edited, they are never shared with the wider community and they are never used to tell a story, or to show or point people towards Jesus, and that is a waste. A waste of time, effort and possibilities.

I would suggest that rather than walking out the door with no plan that you develop themes concepts and storylines that you want to try and capture images for. Be strategic in that. What is the story that will tell of the organisations work, that persons story or showcases God at work?

When you become strategic in shooting like this, you become far more effective in telling the story and the capturing of the supporting images for that story. You can then ensure you you have enough images to support that story. Ask yourself every time you go to take an image, “How am I going to use this image to tell today’s story?”.

Aim for three stories a day (Morning / Afternoon / Night) If you do just those three each day you will have ample material for a range of mission media presentation material and you will be effective, you will survive the trip and what you capture will be of real use!

3) You not just a photographer!

If you actually want to be a real help to the mission organisation you are working for, or to be a real blessing to the missionaries you are with, then stop thinking and acting like you are just a photographer. You are so much more than that.

To be of any real value to organisations or to those in the field, don’t just supply them with images. The chances are, if you do, then they will never be used. Rather supply them with completed stories (images and written words), PowerPoints and short video interviews that don’t need to be edited but can be put straight online in some way.

Those out in the field are already doing what they have been called to do, images and media are not their core business – it is yours! So don’t just take pictures, but provide them with completed typed up stories that they can easily share and distribute. They will think you are AMAZING by doing that. So, its not just about been able to take a photograph, you also need to tell the story around that image so that it can be used immediately.

I would also suggest that you learn how to shoot video on your camera, so that you can do snapshot interviews of people in the field that can be shared that night online.

ALWAYS try and complete each project in the field. If you leave it until you get home, the chances are you will never get it finished and back to those who asked for it.

When out in the field you are not just a photographer or a story teller, but you also need to be a great listener, a friend, a confidant, an adviser, a supporter, a server, a helper and a blessing to those you engage with. Be prepared and be willing to be so much more than just a photographer – you will be surprised by what else you have to be when out in the field!

4) Don’t hide behind the camera, get out from behind there and go build relationships!

It is really easy to hide behind the camera and not engage with the people we are taking pictures of… especially when we are in places and situations outside our comfort zone.

Missions PhotographyPhoto by IPS student Cory Vetter; PENZ2012

Let your camera be a tool to help you engage with your environment and the people in shot. The camera is what gives you permission to engage with that particular person at that point time.

By allowing you take that picture, they have given you an opportunity to capture their life, their world at the moment in time, and that my friends is a very real privilege!

Don’t be dismissive, take the time to engage with those you are photographing, be it a smile, show them the image, sit with them, acknowledge them in some way as a way of showing your appreciation of the amazing gift they just gave you.

Remember, they are not objects or topics, but like you they have hopes, dreams, aspirations and feelings. Jesus loves them just as much as He loves you, and a big part of what you do as a mission photographer is not really about taking pictures at all, but representing Jesus and demonstrating His love to all those you come in contact with.

So, don’t hide behind that camera, get out from behind it and meet the people of this world and see them as Jesus does.

5) You don’t have to be the world’s best!

Firstly, if you are heading off on a missions trip as a photographer let me say well done! You are in for one of the best experiences in your life. We live in a world that seems incredibly focused and hung up on perfection. I want to tell you that you don’t have to be the world’s best photographer to change the world. In fact if you look back over the last few years you will find that images shot on disposable cameras or smartphones have caused some of the most significant world changes in our time. They change the world and the way we think about things, not because they were perfectly exposed, framed or fulfilled the rule of thirds, but because they captured and told a story with honestly and integrity. It is the fact that the image was taken, then the story was told that influenced change, not because of it technical merits.

Some of the so called best images of all time are blurred, poorly framed, badly lit and often taken quickly, yet they have still changed the world in some way. I take great comfort in this fact, so should you! So, take the pressure off yourself and realize that God can still take and use those not so perfect shots for His Glory. I have seen this happen time and time again in my own career where the images I thought where too bad to be shown in public ended up been the image that caused change in government policy, made the news headlines, etc.

While your images may not be perfect, or your sentences particularly well written, the fact that you took the image and wrote the words now means there is an avenue for that story to be told. If you hadn’t taken the image, or wrote those words – then who would of told their story. Do the best you can, with what you have and do it with integrity, respect, honesty and love, then that is all that can be asked of you. After that, all you need to do is to Let go and let God take and use whatever you have and do for His glory.

May your hands always be steady, may your viewfinder never fog, my your lenses never grow mold, may your batteries always be charged, may your cards never fail, may the light always fall just right, may you always believe in yourself and your ability, but most of all, may you know and experience God’s love.

Happy storytelling!

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
New Zealand

“If God can use a donkey to get his message across, then He can use an ass like me!”

Check out the other posts in this series:

5 Reasons to Go on a Short Term Missions Trip

A Vision for Missions Photography

Photography from a Missionary’s Perspective

What I Learned on My Summer Missions Trip

An IPS Student in Africa

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