ATLANTA — Most people know Dr. Charles F. Stanley as “America’s Pastor”, the founder of In Touch Ministries, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, former Southern Baptist Convention president, and a New York Times best-selling author. However, the inimitable teacher of God’s Word is also one of America’s premier photographers.
If the opportunity arises for you to visit the In Touch Ministries headquarters north of Atlanta you will find scores of Stanley’s photographs beautifully displayed – all testifying to his ability to capture the wonders of God’s creative genius through his adeptness with a camera. Additionally, he is remarkably proficient at photographing unique objects – boats, doors, lighthouses, bridges — and giving them a depth of meaning never before realized.
Stanley’s love for photography started on a mission trip to Haiti in 1962 when he traveled to the Caribbean Island with 17 other pastors to proclaim the Gospel. He did not even own a camera at that time, but his wife, Anna, handed him her camera, a Retna IIa, a folding 35mm camera made by Kodak AG.
Anna said to him, “Set it on 125 shutter speed and F16 aperture and don’t change it.”
Stanley hardly knew what those terms meant, but was told he needed a light meter and purchased one for $15 dollars in Miami on his way to Haiti. He took a multiplicity of photographs in Haiti, had them developed when he returned home and said, “They were absolutely beautiful.”
Enhance the message
Subsequent to his trip to Haiti Stanley went to Russia, took photographs everywhere he went in that Communist nation, returned, and showed them to the people in the church he served in Bartow, FL. Stanley remembered, “I gave my testimony highlighting various aspects of the trip, but the people loved having my commentary illustrated with photographs. They told me that seeing the photographs made them feel like they were a part of the trip.”
The pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church often uses his photographs to highlight his sermons. He explained, “Some years ago I was on a trip to Alaska with a good friend and photographer, David Smith. He asked me, “Would you like to get a good photograph of an eagle?”
“I told him, ‘yes’, and sure enough, I got a fantastic shot of an eagle. Later when I was preaching on Isaiah 40 where God says, ‘But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,’ I showed that photo of the eagle. I believe God used it to enhance the effectiveness of the message.”
“When I go on a photography shoot I am always looking for something, because I know God wants to reflect Himself on earth,” he said. “We can see the wisdom, the splendor, and the sovereignty of the Lord in every part of His creation.
“When I return home after a photography expedition I enjoy showing the pictures not for the purpose of saying, ‘Look what I did’, but so they can see what the Lord did.”
“We were on a small island off the coast of Zanzibar when I saw a boat that was dilapidated and in ill repair. I took several photographs of that boat and thought, ‘It may be battered and worn and in need of repair, but this ship will sail again.’
“Sometime later I was preaching and we projected a picture of that boat on the screens in our church. I told them that like that broken-down boat our lives can become shipwrecked, broken, and full of despair, but God can provide grace, forgiveness, and restoration to that life that has been shipwrecked.
“A few weeks later a lady who was present for that service told me, ‘When you showed that picture and spoke about that ship, I felt you were describing me. It was the word I needed to assure me that no matter what I had been through or how hopeless I was feeling, God still had a plan for me. My ship would sail again.’”
Be sensitive to the lesson
Stanley continued, “On another occasion I was with Brad Brown (chief information officer at In Touch) at Edisto Beach and we saw a tree standing out in the water all alone. I thought about all the other trees that had not survived the howling winds and the tempestuous storms and thought, ‘Those who are in the Lord will be able to stand strong in the midst of the most violent storms. God has lessons for us all across His creative landscape if we will be sensitive to those things He allows us to experience.”
The founder and president of In Touch Ministries has taken his photography skills to all seven continents including Antarctica, but stated that his favorite trip was to Africa. One night while trying to sleep in a tent in the heart of one of Africa’s great wildlife preserves he heard the mighty roar of a lion, which he thought was frighteningly nearby.
He exclaimed, “I knew I couldn’t outrun the lion and I was fairly sure I could not win in a fight with the king of beasts, so I remained quiet until the dawn of the new day and we left shortly thereafter.”
Recording natural phenomena, gifts from the Creator
Charles Stanley will celebrate his 84th birthday on September 25, but is still vibrant and looking forward to the future. He explained, “You will be young and useful if you are still planning for tomorrow.”
The Atlanta pastor visited Yosemite National Park in California earlier this year, but plans to return in February to photograph the natural Firefall at Horsetail Fall. In order for this natural phenomenon to occur there must be enough snowmelt to feed the waterfall, which tumbles 1,570 feet down the east face of El Capitan. Likewise, the temperatures must be warm enough during the day to melt the snowpack.
Furthermore the sun must hit the Yosemite Valley from a certain angle and the western sky must be clear at sunset. If everything comes together and conditions are just right, the Yosemite Firefall will light up for about ten minutes.
Stanley is praying that all those conditions will line up so he can take photographs of that natural phenomenon.
Another remarkable scene photographed by Stanley is the Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. This incredible waterfall system consists of 275 falls along almost two miles of the Iguazu River. He stated, “These falls are so enormous that they would make the Niagara Falls small in comparison. We got a helicopter in order to take in the immensity of the falls. The views from the Brazilian side were superior.”
While Stanley enjoys the wildlife in Africa, the spectacular mountain ranges of Patagonia, the mammoth waterfalls of Brazil, the beauty of the Greek Isles, and splendor of Italy, he stated, “To me western America affords the most exquisite scenes for a photographer.”
One of the keys to successful photography is patience. Dr. Stanley commented, “We were in western North Carolina to take a photograph of a little white church in the fall of the year. There were at least a dozen photographers there early in the morning waiting for the clouds to dissipate in order to get a shot of the church in the morning light.
“The clouds would come and go, but there seemed to be no optimum moment to take a picture. Finally, one man exclaimed, ‘Well, we just missed it today. There is not enough light to get the kind of picture we want.’ When he said that the entire group packed up their equipment and left. I decided to wait and see if the right conditions would eventually prevail in order to provide the most favorable conditions to take a photo. Within ten minutes there was a beautiful ray of light that broke through the clouds and it was spectacular.
“Patience is the key to photography. There are times when I have had to wait several days to get the picture I wanted.”
In the light
Stanley has taken photos of birds in flight, of bear cubs sliding down a tree with a night camera, and a charging elephant. A true photographer must not only have knowledge and skill, but a daring sense of adventure.
However, the thing that sets Charles Stanley apart from most adroit cameramen is that he finds meaningful spiritual analogies in his avocation.
For example, lighting is a key factor in creating a successful image. Lighting determines not only brightness and darkness, but also tone, mood, and the atmosphere.
Stanley surmised, “If you don’t have light you can’t have a photo; and if you don’t have Christ you don’t have real life. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
There is no doubt but that Stanley’s remarkable photographs will draw people closer to the Creator.