Church photographers reflect on capturing holy moments

In this day and age, photos are the center of memories. Church photographers use their gifts to help spread the message of God. Photo courtesy of Rocky Holloway

By Jackson Posey | Staff Writer

From Christ Pantocrator in the sixth century to the Sistine Chapel in the 16th, the past 1,500 years of Christian art have primarily arisen from the bristles of a paintbrush. Today, that brush has been replaced by a Sony Alpha 7 IV.

“I feel like God has given me passions and abilities with media for a purpose,” Highlands Ranch, Colo., junior Rocky Holloway, who serves as FM72’s media director, said. “And those are not to go and be selfish, but it’s to reflect Him well. … When I’m at the church, I’m sitting and I’m starting to think about, ‘How can I capture what the Lord is doing and what’s going on with His people? What is going on in this place, and how can I tell that story in a succinct way?’”

Holloway, like other Generation Z Christians, grew up in a cultural environment that sees digitization and documentation as core values. This is the “pics or it didn’t happen” generation — a mantra that has rubbed some church leaders the wrong way.

“The Mass is not a show. It is to go to meet the passion and resurrection of the Lord,” Pope Francis said in 2017. “And I tell you that it gives me so much sadness when I celebrate here in the Piazza or Basilica and I see so many raised cellphones — not just of the faithful, even of some priests and even bishops.”

Francis, who called the increase in church technology use “a very ugly thing,” satirically challenged the use of cellphones during Mass by contrasting it with historical liturgical sayings.

“The priest says, ‘Lift up your hearts,’” Francis said. “He does not say, ‘Lift up your cellphones to take pictures.’”

That anti-technological posture is increasingly becoming the minority view, as the COVID-19 pandemic served as a breaking point for many camera-shy churches. Many congregations around the world now livestream their services to scores of remote viewers, pushing preachers to occasionally address those watching online.

And it isn’t just Sunday mornings. Digital Bible software is on the rise too. According to research conducted by John Dyer for his 2022 book, “People of the Screen,” 45% of evangelicals use their phones to read the Bible “devotionally.” That isn’t countercultural anymore; it is the culture.

And yet, from the broader perspective of American media culture, Christians remain in the minority. Big hitters like “The Chosen” and “He Gets Us” stand out precisely because of their uniqueness in the industry. In some ways, Christian media seems to be a half-step behind the pack. But for many Gen Z Christians with artistic inclinations, good Christian media can provide something nothing else can — documentation of genuine encounters with God.

“My personal style and flair is going to be to lean away maybe from always capturing what’s onstage and focus on what’s happening in the room,” Holloway said. “Because you’re trying to use a physical medium to capture something that’s intangible, right? And that’s really interesting, but what we do understand is faces, is people, is stories, is connection. And so [I use] that to try to illustrate that something ‘not normal’ is going on in this room.”

Austin senior Jenna Rigney, a former Harris Creek photographer who is also on the Kamp Love and FM72 media teams, takes a different approach. Rather than drawing attention to individual stories, she focuses on the broader environment of the room.

“To me, I don’t ever really want to get people’s faces, just because those are really intimate moments where they’re just purely worshiping God,” Rigney said. “To me, those aren’t moments that I should be capturing. I will capture them from behind, showing their hands raised. Or if I want to put on a low shutter speed, I will get some blurry photos maybe if anything, to capture kind of the mood and the movement of the space.”

There’s certainly nuance there. Rigney noted that different environments and moments can change the calculus. Some are more upbeat, like when Kamp Love devotees were “shouting worship songs and jumping around.” But in the more somber, reflective times, her default is to leave extra room.

“Overall, I think it’s just a judgment of, ‘What’s the tone of the space?’ Is it more reflective or full of confession or prayer?” Rigney said. “I’m going to take time to step away, maybe take some further-away shots, just to honor people and where they’re at in the space, because I wouldn’t want people putting a camera in my face when I’m crying, you know?”

Taking that sort of hands-off posture, even with hands still on the camera, isn’t unique to Rigney. St. Louis sophomore Jackson Lawrence, a Harris Creek videographer, is intent on keeping the holiness of God the main thing.

“I definitely think there should be some strict boundaries of keeping a space sacred,” Lawrence said. “I know during Kamp Love, they won’t allow anyone to go into the prayer room except for people on the prayer team or some of the leadership, because a camera does not need to be there. They want to keep that space sacred.”

There’s a philosophical idea that “everything is theological” — that everything Christians do, especially within a worship space, reveals something of what they think of God. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:23 that the church is “the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Therefore, it’s no wonder that one’s perspective on God will practically be lived out in the things they do.

That same concept is equally true for preaching as it is for greeting, as it is for mopping floors, as it is for creating Christian media content. Lawrence, reflecting on his position, sees creating excellent artwork as a reflection of the God who created all excellencies.

“I think being faithful with my job is accurately showing what it looks like to follow Jesus,” Lawrence said. “I don’t see a problem with trying to make that look as good as possible, because that’s exactly what Christ did. I’m reminded of when Jesus is talking with the woman at the well, and He appeals to her thirst and her need for water. And He says to the woman, ‘Do you not ever want to be thirsty again? Do you want to drink from a better water?’ And He’s speaking it about Himself. He is sort of marketing Himself, in a way. And so I think being faithful [in] my job is marketing Christ, following Jesus in the best light possible.”

In the book of Exodus, God gives a particular blessing to a craftsman named Bezalel. God tells Moses that He has “filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Bezalel, among others, is tasked with building the tabernacle, where God will meet with humanity. From the tent of meeting and ark of the testimony to “the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place,” God chooses artists to frame the place where He will meet with His people. In many ways, modern Christian artists are seeking to do the same.

“If it’s just me capturing beautiful moments to glorify God and help people remember who He is and be in awe of Him through that, then we’re doing something,” Rigney said. “I think there is beauty in how He’s given each of us as creatives a specific eye for things. … And I’m not saying erase my identity from that, because God is using me for this, but … there’s so many different ways to capture God’s glory, and it’s beautiful.”

The quality of the artwork certainly matters — shooting with the lens cap on doesn’t help anyone. But in worship photography, the goals are different. More important than the composition or the lighting or the angle is the ultimate subject: God. In the most important shots of their lives, the pressure is all off.

“[I want to] be excellent in it, don’t get me wrong,” Holloway said. “But it’s also stepping into that room and stopping, trying to still myself and asking the Lord, ‘Hey, I want to reflect you well, and I want this to glorify you, so would you help me in that?’ It’s almost like partnering with the Holy Spirit in capturing that moment and capturing those photos and understanding it’s not a matter of perfection; it’s more an act of obedience. [That’s] where I want to line my heart up to be.”