Master’s Thesis on Don Rutledge: Chapter Five – Conclusion

Don Rutledge (photo by Ken Touchton)


To a non-Christian, Don would have been considered crazy for taking the positions with Southern Baptist. Going to the Home Mission Board was a step down in pay and prestige for Don Rutledge. Why would someone leave a superposition to drastically cut salary and work with people who generally did not understand photojournalism? Why would Don repeat the cut in pay and prestige and leave the Home Mission Board to go to the Foreign Mission Board? The answers to these questions only come from one source, and that source is God.

Don turned down positions with Life magazine, Associated Press, and many others. The Associated Press job would allow Don to travel the country doing any feature story he wanted. The AP job also would require him to go with the President of the United States on any overseas coverages. Don turned down what most would not have thought twice about taking as jobs.[54] 

These people dressed in white are going to the Eny River to be baptized and become members of the First Baptist Church in Novosibirsk, Siberia; Thirty-five people are in the group. The person who is leading them is a deacon in the church. His name is Vladimir Korniyshin. According to Eduard Genrich of Second Baptist Church in Novosibirsk, working with outsiders means listening and being heard. People here say they are encouraged and helped by outsiders but taken advantage of by some.

Don did not follow the average direction that most Americans seek. He did not climb the ladder as most would. In our culture, we are trained to continue to go up vertically. We move through our school years doing this, and most continue to do the same in the corporate ladder climb. However, Don learned to follow his Lord——Jesus. Whenever Don decided, there was no brass ring to grab. In hindsight, Don’s life is a testimony to how the Lord cares for his children. 

John Howard Griffin was a black man in New Orleans in 1956. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)
John Howard Griffin was getting dressed in a hotel in 1956. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)
John Howard Griffin is looking at movies playing. He would have a separate entrance when going in as a black man. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)
John Howard Griffin as a black man and polishing shoes for a white man. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)

Don’s life has been a testimony to other photographers who are not Christian. He is often asked to speak at conferences for the National Press Photographers, Atlanta Press Photogra­phers, and The Southern Short Course and also speaks for numerous camera clubs around the country.

This writer concludes that Don has exemplified better than most that following your Lord does not mean giving yourself to a lesser life. Those who earlier criticized Don for leaving Black Star to work with Southern Baptist have repeatedly called him asking if there are any openings for them to serve.[55]

New York City, NY 1966:  Lady on the rooftop. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)

Those who want to follow in Don’s footsteps need to be warned that the road that Don has paved still has potholes and other problems that will require one to proceed cautiously. They must realize Don focused on relationships with all those around him. They must build strong relationships. 

While working with Don at the Foreign Mission Board, this writer observed how the administrative assistants and those working in the file area of photography often teased Don. After one trip, Don’s office was wholly rolled with toilet paper. Another time, one of the girls in the office had everyone dress like Don. Don always wore the same style of shirt, making teasing him easy.              Another time, Don came back to discover his desk stacked with mail. Virginia Adams, administrative assistant in the communications department, made labels with Don’s name and address. Virginia asked everyone to bring in all their junk mail. She then put the labels on all that mail.

Boy in the mirror. (Photo by: Don Rutledge)

One does not build this relationship by looking out for themselves alone. Don was not around much at the Foreign Mission Board, but he knew how to put all at ease around him. He was well known for the stories that he told. Don always had a story to tell and keep people laughing. 


Don’s ability with people is strongly related to his relationship with Christ. No matter how good one is with the camera or words, one must understand that Don’s success is due to the diligence and patience given to him by Jesus Christ. You will never hear Don preaching or grabbing shirt collars to witness. Due to Don’s life, many have seen Christ’s compassion for the world. Looking at Don’s photographs allows one to see the world from a Christian perspective. One does not have to work with a Christian institution to do what Don does well. One only needs a Lord they call their master to understand how he does it all——his Lord enables him.


[54] Interview with Rutledge.

[55] Rutledge.

Master’s Thesis on Don Rutledge: Chapter One

Figure 1 Harley Shields is a Southern Baptist Home Missionary whose workplace is in Selawik, Alaska. Don photographed him in 1978.

This writer has en­joyed seeing the world, approximately 137 coun­tries, and all of the United States without ever leav­ing his own home.

Most of the travel­ing was done with the help of The Commission Magazine and Missions USA. Both maga­zines have won some of the highest awards in the country. The Commission Magazine has placed third in magazines in the “Pic­tures of The Year” contest sponsored by the Na­tional Press Photographers Association in 1989 and 1990. Missions USA has earned similar awards. These Southern Baptist magazines are in league with National Geographic and Life Magazine for their photography and design. The reason for their success can be significantly tied to Don Rutledge. For this reason, this writer is doing his thesis on Don Rutledge for publication.

Don has worked for the Black Star photo agency in New York for over thirty years. He has also worked for the Home Mission and the Foreign Mission Boards of the SBC. He has won more than 400 awards for his work. In addition, he has been published in many magazines and books around the globe. His career has taken him throughout all fifty states, Canada, and 135 countries.

Today, Rutledge is a mentor to many professional photographers and students. All of the photojournalists in the Southern Baptist Convention point to Don as the reason they are where they are today. All of them hope one day to make the impact he has already made for Southern Baptists and the cause of missions.

Having worked with Don Rutledge for many years, this writer has developed an excellent appreciation for him. He has understood that working with people is the common thread that binds all those in minis­try. Don works with people so well that he has made significant changes in magazines with his soft, encouraging voice. Wherev­er Don goes, he makes many friends.

Figure 2 Every year, Carl Holden, a home missionary, takes his young people tubing from his church, Central Baptist.

Don’s ability with people is a gift. Don puts people at ease with or without his camera. This is a talent envied by photo­jour­nalists the world over. Those in the field of Christian photojour­nalism understand where this gift came from. They know how Don’s faith is lived out through his camera.

As one looks at Don’s photographs, one feels he is in the room with the people. Don becomes a part of the woodwork wherever he goes. He blends in so well that people can be themselves. His subjects looked as though Don was not present. They are not reacting to his presence but are free to be themselves. Don has allowed God to be so much a part of his work that when one speaks of how Don is a part of the woodwork, one can picture how the Holy Spirit works through him.

Figure 3 In 1967, Don Rutledge went inside the Artic Circle and captured this Eskimo child playing.

His reputation often precedes Don, now that people know of his integrity without ever meeting him. They can see a man who gives dignity to his sub­jects. Often, many pho­togra­phers today will exploit their sub­jects. They pho­to­graph a handi­capped per­son and exag­gerate his handicap so that one never really sees the per­son. Don’s pho­tos call one to feel a part of the per­son. Don says the eyes are the windows to the soul. He re­veals the inner­most aspect of people in a brief instant that is frozen on film. The more one looks at the photo­graph, the more one sees. He packs so much information into a photo­graph that one can go over and over it and see something new every time—Don in­cludes small details in his photo­graphs like a good writer who pulls his reader into the situation.

Don studied to be a psy­chologist and worked on his doctorate in the field. He also studied for the minis­try and was a pastor for a short period. He still uses his psychology in pho­to­graphing people, and his pictures reach more than 1.5 million weekly.

Don’s work has helped people see the result of mission­aries’ work worldwide. In addition, he has helped the mission board reach the world for Christ.

Growing up as a home missionary kid helped this writer realize the importance of relationships in ministry. This writer felt the call to the church and went a traditional route of majoring in social work and planning to go on to the semi­nary to become a pastor. While in college, this writer discovered photog­raphy and the camera’s power as a communication tool. Knolan Benfield, Jr., was a photogra­pher who worked on Missions USA magazine and introduced this writer to Don Rutledge. This writer was intrigued by the work that Don did on the maga­zine.

After talking with Don, this writer felt redi­rect­ed in his call to be a minister who used the camera as a central part of his ministry. Many who are Christian photojour­nalists have struggled with the call. In many ways, the Chris­tian photojour­nalist is a preacher. The photo­journalist’s illus­trations are not done with words in the pulpit but with photo­graphs on the printed page.

As one will see, Don’s work is powerful, and his style can be seen in most photojournalists who work for the Southern Baptists. They will tell you they hope someday to be like Don.

Don dreams of publications combining words and pictures effectively to communicate God’s concerns in his heart. This driving force in Don is the Holy Spirit convicting him of the message of missions. His photographs have one common theme: Love. They have moved people to become in­volved in tasks. God has called them into missionary service after they looked at the mission field through the “eyes of Don.” Don’s work has helped meet the needs of people worldwide.

When considering the skills of Don Rutledge, one can see that he could have become very wealthy from his photography if he had not worked with Southern Baptists. In the three months before coming to work with Southern Baptists, he made more than he would make in the next two years working with Southern Baptists. His decision to be a minister with a camera meant choosing the narrow road. Don decided to follow Jesus Christ. Due to his follow­ing Christ, his work as a Christian photojour­nalist has helped spread the gospel worldwide.

[1]Howard I. Feinberg, The Best of Photojournalism 16: The Year in Pictures, (Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 1991), 232.