A Tale of Two Photos

The photos we choose to share in missions photography should represent subjects as the treasures they are, made in God's image. Photographs by Robert Johnson / TEAM

Robert Johnson, TEAM’s Creative Director and Editor-in-Chief of Horizons magazine, shares about subjectivity and how we portray people in images.

Her collection of doll parts filled a storage shed behind her house. Plastic arms, legs, heads, and bodies spilled from overstuffed bags onto the concrete floor. Maria Delfina Hernandez had built a small business with these doll parts salvaged from a dump in Guatemala City, cleaning them up, piecing them back together and selling them at low cost in the market.

She’s been doing this for years.

A gospel analogy using baby doll parts, Hernandez’s story is inspiring to me and to many others. A couple of years before we met, she was the central figure in a Guatemalan-made documentary film. So Hernandez was reserved when we met, but not unfamiliar with photographers. I wanted to document her little business and the joy she finds from restoring these dolls to usable condition.

Hernandez graciously went through the motions, walking me and a videographer to her shed, opening bags with doll parts, explaining how she matched pieces and sewed them together. She shared about the smiles these dolls bring to little girls’ faces in the market, girls who could not otherwise afford a doll. It made me smile as I thought about the joy my daughter finds in playing with her dolls.

I got the shots of her business, but I still wanted to make a portrait of Hernandez by herself. The question was how to portray her.

When I first positioned her in a doorway, she stood very stoically, seemingly staring through my lens and right into my eyes. I knew right away that I didn’t feel like this first image (left) conveyed what I saw in Hernandez.

So I waited. I let the awkwardness of the situation rise a bit and then looked out from behind my camera to ask for a smile. She obliged. Then I waited some more.

I could see the moment I was waiting for approaching. Hernandez began to open up and let the smile move over her entire face, and then she broke out in a nervous laugh that brought a sense of joy over her entire countenance. This was the photograph that I was wanting to make (right), and this was the image that ran on the cover of the spring issue of Horizons in 2013.

It would seem obvious to choose the smiling image for a magazine cover, but the photo was going to stand in contrast to the text on the cover: “Treasures of the city dump.”

This one could almost have easily gone either way. I could have used an image that would evoke need and suffering, corresponding with the words “city dump.” This is done all too often in missions photography. But instead, I wanted the image to show the value of these Guatemalans who live around the city dump area — they are treasures!

We often use portraits on the cover of Horizons. It has really opened my eyes to the dignity in each person that God has placed in front of my lens. I quickly moved past the idea that for an image to move people it had to show human suffering and depravity. In fact, I feel like the fly-on-the-face, shock-value images have been used so much that I am not as affected by them. Instead, I try to get to know my subjects a bit, so that I can make a portrait that reflects their situation whether it is joyful or a place of need.

By spending a little bit of time learning from Hernandez, I saw that she is driven to see others delight in the simple joys of holding a doll. She operates a business, earning a living and finding fulfillment in her work. She has her own needs, but she also is aware of the many blessings she has received. Hernandez knows that she is a treasure and she exudes that reality.

See more images of God’s work around the world at Horizons online.

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About the author

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is the former creative director and editor-in-chief for TEAM's quarterly magazine, Horizons. He has traveled to nearly all of TEAM's ministry areas, telling stories through photographs of the Kingdom of God advancing in the world. Robert and his wife, Cheyenne, live in Aurora, Illinois with their three children.

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  • What a great article, Robert! And I love the laughing photo of Maria-it makes me want to know her. Blessings on your unique ministry.

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