Don Rutledge my mentor

Don’s awareness of body language is sometimes very clear-cut, like here in this photograph of the teacher and students. Often, the body language is more subtle in Don’s photographs. Body language is always essential in Don’s photographs.

I was processing film at the Hickory Daily Record when I got a call from Don Rutledge. He told me about an entry-level photographer position for the International Mission Board.

The chance to learn from Don Rutledge was one of the best opportunities in my life. While I wanted Don to look at my work, Don taking the time to walk me through his contact sheets helped me the most.

Don’s storytelling with his camera helped missionaries realize God’s calling for them. Those impacted by his work are vast. Just as extensive as his stories are those he mentored.

Harley Shields is a Southern Baptist Home Missionary whose workplace is in Selawik, Alaska. Don photographed him in 1978.

Unless Don was on the phone, his door was open at the office. While working with Don, I cannot remember how many people came by or called to ask for Don’s advice. No matter their work’s bad, Don treated everyone with honor, dignity, and respect.

He always looked for something positive to talk about with them. I learned that when Don would look through my contact sheets, if he passed over a sheet, then he couldn’t find something to say something positive. He was often reticent while looking at my work early on. He would then reach for his contact sheets to talk—rather than express my work stunk.

Inside the Artic Circle, 1967: Eskimo child chasing ball.

Don taught me how important it is not to use visual gimmicks to create interest in a subject. Don taught me how to compose a scene like you might see on a stage in a theater. The composition is done when the curtain rises, but then the scene develops. The audience doesn’t get different camera angles; they see the subjects moving in the scene. Don helped me understand the rise, the peak, and the fall of action. He showed me my contact sheets should show this rise, peak, and fall.

“Don discovered these two youngsters who proudly displayed the results of their morning hunt. In that section of Cincinnati, rats were not particularly difficult quarry to locate,” said Walker Knight.

Don then taught me how important it was to understand body language. I remember him showing me a series on a contact sheet. See the mother reaching out to the baby. See how just before she touches the baby, it is a more powerful image than when she feels the baby. The anticipation is stronger than the actual touch. He then reminded me of Michael Angelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of the creation of Adam. Reaching to God and not touching.

Don understood how meaningful people’s relationship with each other in the photo is; it is the real power of the storytelling image.

Philippines Clustered on the split-bamboo floor for a meal are (clockwise from left) missionary Boe Stanley, Supreme Datu Manlapanag, Basilisa Feril, Jean Tolintino and Arsenio Garilao.

Don understood that his God gave his life for a relationship with each one of us. Nothing was more important than to establish and grow relationships. All of Don’s work was to show the power of God’s love. You either see the celebration of God’s love, or you feel the sadness of someone who isn’t letting God into their life.

Don helped me realize how to fulfill my call to ministry with the camera. Don was a pastor who realized the camera was a pulpit and the congregation wasn’t limited by the walls of a church.

Don Rutledge

Today, my clients often tell me how much they like my storytelling. My success is due to Don taking me under his wing and teaching me.

Some of my friends who Don also mentored have commented that they can see Don’s influence in my work. While this always brings a tear and lump in my throat, the photographers who thank me for teaching them make me the proudest.

The most excellent way I have to honor Don is to make photos that respect the subject and tell their story. Also, helping other photographers like Don helped me is a way to pay it forward.

I can never thank Don enough for helping me to see the world through God’s eyes.