While I was an undergrad, I took all the photography classes my small liberal arts college offered. I took them because it helped me remain sane amidst the stress of all the studying. I found evenings in the dark room relaxing (yes, this was in ancient times before digital photography really took-off).
While the process of developing and printing film no longer really applies, the image-composition ideas I learned continue to inform my work as a pastor. I remember the time my photography professor, Greg Shchrek, took me aside and told me I had to work on my printing skills. I would spend hours trying to print a negative just right, “burning” (giving more light) and “dodging” (giving less light) different parts of the image. My own eye for what makes an image “good” or “bad” was slowly being trained by my professor’s master eye. After four years of toiling in the dark room, I received the ultimate compliment from him. Looking at my final project, he declared that I had made the most of the format that I was using, and that he couldn’t expect any better prints or images.
While I didn’t become a professional photographer, I do find myself using that well-formed-eye to help communicate more effectively with those I lead. We live in an image conscious world. We constantly consume images, but most of us have not had our eye trained to make or pick good ones. We are master consumers, and while we know when an image isn’t excellent, we don’t always know how to create an image that communicates well. I think a leader who doesn’t know how to communicate with images is significantly hindered in today’s world.
In “Leading with the Heart,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) says, “You hear, you forget. You see, you remember. You do, you understand.” I think most leaders try to move too quickly to doing from hearing and bypass seeing. We teach with words and then expect people to do what we say. But Jesus himself used images constantly to communicate, and that’s probably why his teaching is so memorable. Many of those images may come to us today by way of words, but we have the opportunity to retranslate them back into images that communicate with the people we lead today.
Of course, all this takes practice and (ideally) a master to apprentice under. Short of signing up for a photography class or finding a professional photographer who is willing to teach you, I’d suggest leaders try out the same assignment I was given in one of my first photography classes: take thirty pictures every day for the next thirty days. Share the best of these images with someone and talk about what makes them good or bad. This will help you as a leader develop an eye for communicating with images -- a skill that will help people remember, so they can effectively do and understand.
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.