Incarnate Photography: Creating Community around His Image

The local church needs photographers from their congregation to capture and share the real stories of people. The localized body needs to be reminded that sharing stories individually and as a community is sacred, and the visual art of photography paired with select words has the ability to enable their members to form a deeper community. Photography creates a digital bridge of communication than allows a community to understand the stories being told on a deeper and more powerful level.

Leah, Kate, & Anna / Chicago, USA

People in the local church need Christ-focused photographers to create that bridge of communication because as humans, they each have a story that longs to be shared and longs for someone else to resonate with it. The truth is hurt people will hurt people. Attendees of a local church community will inevitably come with their hurt, pain, problems, and experiences. The role of the pastor and the artist is to care for these people. The goal is to bring the body of believers into closer relationships with each other. Photography can give a voice to a member’s pain and say, “someone else feels alone,” or “someone else lost everything.”

One of the main issues with the local church body is the lack of communication. Often small groups of people are connected, or the pastor might have good relationships with his entire congregation based on its size. But the rest of the members are left out. No connections have been made. In some churches, some members have been going there for over ten years, and they are still just as unknown as when they first walked into the foyer.

We breed a generation that prefers facsimile to reality, simplicity to complexity (for cultural copying, almost by definition, ends up sanding off the rough and surprising edges of any cultural good it appropriates), and familiarity to novelty. Not only is this a generation incapable of genuine creative participation in the ongoing drama of human culture making, it is dangerously detached from a God who is anything but predictable and safe. (Crouch, 94)

To be a body of believers following Christ’s mandate to live in community, communication and local church culture must increase in some way. It is the Christian’s mandate to rub shoulders with other believers and live closely with one another (1 Cor 12:12–27). To grow as a body of believers, being vulnerable, sharing experiences, and forming community are an integral part of this. Currently, almost no media is used in individual churches for the purpose of creating a closer community. But photography could be highly useful in shaping localized church culture as it gives weight and value to a person’s experiences and provides validation.

The Church has begun to realize the importance of photography in its congregation, but it is mostly used as propaganda. Christian photographers should strive to portray their subjects with the dignity every human being is entitled to. Many Christians would agree that photography has its place in sharing narratives because they have seen the power of photography at work in the culture around them. Christians use photography in their nuclear families, documenting moments that are precious, sharing and preserving their lives for future generations. But the local church has yet to grasp the shift in community that would occur if they harnessed the narrative aspect of photography in their own congregation.

The Rubart Family / Indiana, USA

Technology is not normally thought of an agent that can create deeper community or the space for vulnerability. Currently, there is no relationship between photography and the local church body for the purpose of better interpersonal communication. But if just one photographer, equipped with a love for the Lord and for people, used photography as a means to tell stories of the congregation, the start of a revolution in that church community would start. This is a call for incarnate communication.

Artists have the ability to see from a unique perspective afforded them by their craft. Throughout history, artists have been the prophetic voices that have heralded the issues and celebrated the progress of society. The heart of an artist beats for vulnerable and authentic communication, of a place where the community understands. As a person who has perspicuity on the problems of a local church’s community, and also has the ability to cultivate true communication, the artists of churches are called to act. In the past, even though photography has not been used as a venue for communication, photographers have the ability to change their local church communities if they are willing to take that risk.

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say the medium and the message are fully one and the same” (Media and the Light, 103). As Christian art makers follow the Incarnate Christ in their making, their finished works are incarnate in themselves. Since it is impossible to separate the medium from the message, Christ is in every work of art, or in every photograph taken. Through Scriptures, it is obvious what happened when Christ came to earth. The way he spoke truth changed lives, and in the same way, photographs that carry the incarnate stamp of Christ have the same ability to change lives.

“Scripture shows how Jesus repeatedly used communication to serve come of the most despised and weak people in society. Jesus communed with the shunned Samaritan woman, with tax collectors, with prostitutes, and with the destitute blind man. Christ’s ministry was not a quest for celebrity, it did not reflect a yearning for symbolic domination, and it was not a means by which to boost the authority of established social institutions. Jesus did not take symbolic power as much as he gave it to the powerless; his earthly ministry culminated in the cross itself, the greatest symbol of liberation in human history” (Schultze, 100).

In the same way, Christian communicators should seek to give power to those they communicate with and for. Photography specifically has a way of tangibly collecting a moment that can resonate with other people. Jesus brought into each of these situations truth and love, a validation of the circumstance, and a model of how believers should live for the future. The most direct communication is seen though action. Just as Christ’s actions changed the course of history and brought true communication, so can the actions of a photographer who choses to use photography as incarnate communication. A photographer who has skill and is truly striving to accurately portray someone’s narrative, will create photographs that are not disenchanted media, but accurately capture a moment and make it relatable to others.

Mercedes Velizagc / Toro Toro, Bolivia

Photographers who desire to create that digital bridge of communication for a local church body must come as Christ embodied, and enter into the daily reality of others. They must reflect the love of Christ in their lives and into the lives of the congregation. “Jesus did not attempt to meet every need or delegate every responsibility but instead chose to meet specific people, in specific places, and met specific needs as he came in contact with them. From this flows everything else. Especially our media” (Kammerzelt, 2015). It can be overwhelming for a photographer to attempt to “fix” the entire communication process of their local church. This should not be their priority. As a photographer part of a local congregation, they should choose to meet with specific people first, hear and progress those stories. As Christ met with people individually and on their level, so Christ-following photographers should emulate his calling and listen to and speak into specific people at specific times.

It is in the incarnate equation of truth telling that photographers can find their niche. Photographers have an ability to understand people in order to capture an image that encapsulates who they are. They can and should tell the stories of individuals that the congregation would not get to know otherwise. They can listen and call these individuals’ lives holy, anoint the pain in their circumstances, give a voice to their concerns and their every day occurrences. A community would grow from this sharing of lives.

As an individual in can be difficult to access the pain, put words to the experiences, and communicate it to other brothers and sisters in Christ. But if there was a photographer to fill that gap, capture the individual’s story through images and a few words, and then share with the rest of the congregation, authentic communication could occur, a person could be known more fully, and a community could become deeper.

Throughout the Bible and history, people start creating and movements start happening because an prophetic voice communicated pain in a tangible way the people could rally around. In Judges 6:25–32, Gideon, in answer to the Lord’s command, tears down the altars made to Baal. In the next chapter, Gideon had over 30,000 men follow him into battle, and defeated the Midianites with only 300 men. The prophets tore their clothes and put on sackcloth, Israelites corporately mourned, even the Philistines corporately offered sacrifices to lift the plagues brought upon them by retaining the Ark. Joan d’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, was a symbol for the French to rally around. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech became a symbol of hope for people to hold on and support. Photography has the ability to create the same affect in the local church.

The power of photography can be seen throughout all cultures and historic timelines. Robert Draper writes, “By wrestling a precious particle of the world from time and space and holding it absolutely still, a great photograph can explode the totality of our word, such that we never see it quite the same again.” (National Geographic). Photography holds its power because of the people dedicated to finding the image and it’s narrative and sharing it with the world. Christian photographers with a propensity for truth telling will be able to guide the congregation in local church through the narratives.

Joselyn Valei / Toro Toro, Bolivia

Imagine a local church with even one photographer dedicated to telling the stories of the church. How the community would grow closer as the photographs attested to history of someone’s life. The experiences held by the community would be shared through an intimate way. Imagine the depth of connection Millennials would feel as their narratives were shared honestly and celebrated for what they were. These photographs would not only connect peers in the church, but would aid generations to relate and understand each other. Joshua Longbrake, an artist and photographer, took photographs of his grandfather to document the last few months of his life. Those photographs created a change in his family, because to share a story of such intimacy can only bring people closer. As a family, the local church will become closer as they enter into the narratives of the congregation through photographs.

Photographers are part of change. If Christians hope to see a change in their community and an ability to share stories and vulnerabilities, they should look to the photographers in their community to champion these values. Photography has played an important part as a social witness in its own time. Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, and Euguene Richards assisted in the documentation of their social historical narratives. Photographs of the Depression Era and child labor brought an awareness of the resilience, tenacity, and legacy that America had. These photographs had power because of their narrative, because of the people they were connected to. The same thing can happen in the local church.

Ideally, this might look like a photographer in a local body having the desire and call from God to created photographs that would begin to cultivate a truth telling community in a new way. The photographer would meet with several people individually, spending specific time with them over a period of time. Essentially, “rubbing shoulders” with them and living life along side them. During this time, relationships would form. The photographer would begin to understand these people from his church body, now his friends, in a deeper and more complete way. Through different locations, with different groups of people, and listening to each person’s narrative, the photographer would continue to put together a holistic picture of the person he is interacting with. This process is not something that needs to be rushed. The photographer is not purposing to get to know the person for the sake of taking photographs, but for the sake of getting to know them. Once the individual and the photographer have established a solid relationships, the camera can be picked up and the photographs taken. This also helps ensure that the photographs show a the reality of the subject’s life. A photographer who invests time, holds a high integrity of purpose, and possesses skill can capture an image without bias. Worldwide, photographers strive to accurately represent their subjects. A photograph is not taken; it is only given.

Once a series of photographs from one person is taken, the photographer would edit them. Then he would carefully curate a series of photographs from several people into a gallery for the congregation to view. The local church would host an event where a small gathering of people (around 20) would come and view the series of photographs. The photographer could also write prose or a short narrative that would help piece the photographs together. During this time of gathering, the photographer would help facilitate a time of story telling. Each person whose photographs were being displayed would be able to share parts of their life, and the photographs would be there as a visual representation of who they were. The photographer could help the participates tell their stories if the individuals were nervous or did not enjoy public speaking. This would be a time where each narrative, no matter how “sensitive” or “mundane” would be heard, validated, and celebrated for what it is. A deeper community would start to form from sharing life is such a tangible and poignant way.

This is not an event to be shared with the online community. Perhaps even the pictures would not be shared in the social media realm (Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter). An event like this would be a scared place; each individual would be invited to attend. There would be a sense of reverence when entering someone’s narrative. As time continued, more relationships would form, more photographs would be taken, and more events would be curated. The local church is not telling stories for the sake of telling stories, but for the sake of learning who it’s members are and becoming closer. As more events would be curated, the church could expand the size of the audience coming to listen, until all of the congregation had their stories told and felt known by the people they see on Sundays. Hopefully this would generate a deeper community. The people in the groups that heard each other’s stories would begin to gather because the bond of their shared stories did something in their hearts and deepened their fellowship.

This use of photography in the localized church will require two things to start. First, a selfless photographer dedicated to the pursuit of God and forming a deeper community in his local church. This will take an incredible amount of time and energy on a photographer’s part. Again, the photographer’s job is not to fix the entire communication process in the church, but to meet specific people in specific ways at specific times. The process of telling someone’s story does not happen overnight.

Secondly, the local church must realize their need for deeper community and have a willingness to try a new approach with a new form of technology. Something like this has not been done before in the local church. If a church cannot recognize the need for deeper and more authentic communication, this idea comes to a standstill. It can also be intimating for someone to let a photographer into his or her life. To someone that does not operate in the photography or technology saturated world, this will be a new experience. Patience and understanding must abound for this idea to work. I tried this process to see how affective this would be.

Katy / Indiana, USA

I’ve been friends with Katy since high school, through six years of friendship. We’re still close. Earlier in the semester she called me crying. In one week her life completely flipped over and everything was falling apart. It was traumatic and terrifying. I told her I would come home every week this semester and spend as much time as she needed with her. A month went by. I asked her if I could take photographs of her, explaining that what they would be for. Katy was confused but obliged me. We took an afternoon and I shot frame after frame. Later as I edited the photos and saw her expressions, I wrote prose to encapsulate her experience.

Katy / Indiana, USA

I made a blog post with a few of the photos and this prose. Then I sent Katy the link and ask her what she thought. She told me it was beautiful and she started crying. She felt like her story was known and validated in some way. I was able to cumulate her experience through a series of images and a poem. A stranger would not necessarily understand this experience. But through hosting an event, gathering people, and sharing more of Katy’s life, these photographs could be affective. Incarnate images demonstrating truth to a local body.

It is through photographers that a digital bridge in communication can be created. In a local church, they can be the ones to gather the stories of the individuals and share them with the congregation. Christians following the call of an Incarnate God to exemplify incarnate communication in the place where a Christian’s most authentic and vulnerable communication and relationships should be.

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008. Print.

Kraft, Charles H. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-cultural Perspective. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Leavy, Patricia. Method Meets Art: Arts-based Research Practice. New York City: Guildford, 2015. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Media and Light. N.p.: n.p., 2010. Print.

Schultze, Quentin. Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. Print.