With photography, Don Rutledge was global missions pioneer
Mar 15, 2013
By BP STAFF

PIONEER Photographer Don Rutledge, who told the story of missions through his camera lens for several generations of Southern Baptists, died Feb. 19. He was 82. First in the United States and eventually throughout the world, Rutledge captured quiet moments of humanity and mission ministry in hundreds of classic photographs taken for the Home (now North American) Mission Board and later for the Foreign (now International) Mission Board. He called them windows on the soul. His images inspired millions of Southern Baptists to pray for and participate in missions. BP photo
MIDLOTHIAN, Va. (BP)—Renowned photographer Don Rutledge, who told the story of missions through his camera lens for several generations of Southern Baptists, died at his home near Richmond, Va., Feb. 19. He was 82 and had been in declining health for some time.

Traveling throughout the United States and to more than 140 countries over 40-plus years, Rutledge captured quiet moments of humanity and mission ministry in hundreds of classic photographs taken for the Home (now North American) Mission Board and later for the Foreign (now International) Mission Board. His images helped millions to understand, pray for and participate in missions. 

“I love photojournalism and enjoy using it as a worldwide Christian ministry,” Rutledge once wrote. “It forces me to see, to look beyond what the average person observes, to search where few people care even to look, to glance over and beyond my backyard fence.... It helps me translate the national and international ministries into human terms by telling the story through people rather than through statistics.”

Born on a farm in Depression-era Tennessee, Rutledge originally intended to be a pastor. He tried preaching for a time after studying theology in college and seminary. But he discovered an old box camera that belonged to his uncle—and the call to photograph the world and the people in it proved far stronger. 

“He was a good pastor because he was a good listener,” Lucy, his wife of 61 years, remembered. “But photography was always in the background.” 

Black Star, Black Like Me

Rutledge began to shoot photo stories as a freelancer and obsessively studied the work of great photographers. Some of his self-assigned stories in the 1950s and early ‘60s required considerable physical courage, including coverage of the violence surrounding the growing civil rights movement in the South. Still a raw rookie, he heard about New York-based Black Star, then the nation’s top photojournalism agency.

“In total ignorance, I wrote  and offered to do photo stories,” Rutledge recalled many years later. “A form letter replied that they would need to see a portfolio of my work. I felt my pictures were not yet good enough for me to send a set.”

DIGNITY Don Rutledge photographed many stories about the struggle for racial equality and justice in the South during the height of the civil rights movement. This image reveals the dignity of men and women who had long been denied their rights as Americans—and as human beings. Photo by Don Rutledge
But he sent a list of 10 story ideas. Black Star expressed a mild no-promises interest in one of them for a magazine client. Rutledge took that response as a firm assignment, shot the story and sent in the film. Amused and intrigued, Black Star and the magazine’s editor decided to take a chance on the young upstart and asked for more photos to fill holes in the story, which was eventually published. Rutledge’s future was set.

He eventually joined Black Star as a staff photographer—a job offered to only a handful of America’s top shooters—and covered stories for the next 10 years in numerous countries for magazines such as LIFE, LOOK and Paris Match. He would disappear for months at a time into Latin America and other regions, armed with hundreds of rolls of film and a list of story assignments. 

“I always packed his suitcase with enough shirts, socks and underwear for 10 days,” Lucy said, remembering her early years as a young bride learning the patience and longsuffering she would need for many decades to come. After that, he had to find someplace to wash his clothes. On the first long trip, she added, “I put all his socks in one compartment [in the suitcase]. I don’t think the man found them until he got home.”

Rutledge’s reputation quickly grew—and he became internationally known when he shot the pictures for Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book about his harsh experiences of racism in the last days of the segregation-era South, when Griffin darkened his skin to appear black. In his racial disguise, Griffin traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi in 1959 with Rutledge at his side. It was a dangerous assignment for the 29-year-old photographer, who never accepted the racial hatred that buffeted his Tennessee boyhood. After the book was published, Griffin was hanged in effigy in his hometown and threatened with death. Even a decade later, Griffin was beaten with chains by Ku Klux Klansmen and left for dead on a back road in Mississippi. He recovered and continued his work. Black Like Me, a modern classic, sold more than 10 million copies, becoming one of the most powerful and influential chronicles of the struggle for change during the civil rights era. 

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