Through My Lens: Reflections of a Missionary Provocateur by Greg Schneider
For one reason or another, God seems to have gifted Jewish people disproportionately. If you look down a list of leading artists, musicians, or comedians, there is a much higher percentage of Jewish people than our numbers in the general population would lead you to predict. And I think that as a Jew, God gave me a certain sensitivity to artistic things. Since I really love people, I wanted to translate my talents into a storytelling medium. That’s how I ended up in photojournalism.
Our family were Southern California Reform Jews. Dad was an amateur photographer, with one of those old twin lens reflex cameras. Photography captured my interest, and when an opportunity opened up in high school to take the football pictures for the yearbook, I volunteered. And I noticed that whenever I carried my camera, all the pretty girls started paying attention to me! The camera represented power, and photography was a passport to the action.
From that point on, I wanted to pursue photojournalism as a career. After college I went to work as a newspaper photographer. What really captured my attention was the human condition, seeing people who were going through hard times, maybe victims of crime, maybe just down on their luck. The ’60s and ’70s, when I started getting into photography, were times of social upheaval in our country, which I thought would be important to document. But by my fifth year in the profession, I had already reached many of my goals. I was California News Photographer of the Year, I had been nominated for a Pulitzer, and I thought, What now? Is there any more to life than this?”
About the same time, both my girlfriend Karen and another reporter at the paper had become Christians. I had already investigated eastern religions and transcendental meditation; now I read Born Again by Charles Colson and thumbed through Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I even started reading the New Testament, where I encountered a man who was very clearly Jewish, but at the same time made very brash claims about himself. Six months after Karen became a Christian, I ended up praying to receive the Lord right in my kitchen.
Afterwards, I found out that people had been praying for me. My mother Laura, whose cancer was diagnosed one month after I came to faith, said that she had been praying for her children to receive the Lord for six months. It turns out that she had made a commitment to Yeshua as a teenager at a church camp. But growing up in a Jewish environment and marrying a Jewish agnostic-atheist, she was a “closet believer” for most of her life. Not until she sensed that her life was coming to an end did she become more serious about her faith.
Others were praying, too. I worked at the Sun newspaper in San Bernardino, California, home to the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Their three photographers had been praying every morning for the photographers at the local papers, with our pictures posted on their bulletin board. Ultimately, I ended up not only coming into the kingdom but also joining the staff of Campus Crusade for eight years.
One reason I left the newspaper field and joined Campus Crusade was that I had come to believe that if I was going to serve the Lord, I should be working in a Christian ministry. But I quickly discovered a side effect. I lost a lot of credibility with my friends in the newspaper business. In their eyes, I was no longer a professional photographer but a professional Christian. I’ve had a change of mind since then. I now see how important it is for Christians to stay in their secular positions, to be salt and light in those situations. These days, I actively encourage young believers in college to get into secular positions in the field of journalism, which could certainly use a few more believers in Jesus.
And in the secular world, I’ve experienced conflicts between faith and work. Shortly after I became a Christian, my boss assigned me to cover the Miss Nude Universe Pageant. I didn’t know much about what Christians were supposed to do or not do, but I had a sense that I probably shouldn’t be looking at a lot of naked women! Fortunately, my boss was very sympathetic to my beliefs and he assigned another photographer to cover the event.
Another dilemma every photojournalist has to face at one time or another is whether to remain a “fly on the wall”—maintaining a (so-called) objective distance from your subject—or to put the camera down and help when needed. Around 1990, there was a young American missionary whose wife suddenly died while they were in Poland. He came stateside with their two children to bury his wife, then went back to Poland. I was with him that whole time, photographing the funeral and his return to Poland. As a brother in Yeshua, I was torn between being that fly on the wall and pitching in to help as he juggled two small children and luggage. As a photojournalist, the fear is that if you help, you’ll lose your objectivity. However, I have come to a position where I don’t believe in the concept of complete objectivity anymore. All photojournalists bring their worldview and presuppositions to bear on everything they do. Let’s just be honest about that.
Being a photographer also provides opportunities. Once I was looking for someone to pose as the priest Zechariah, from Luke’s gospel. I was shopping at Sam’s Club and there was a guy with a big beard in the dairy section. He looked Jewish and I thought he would be perfect. At first I didn’t have the nerve to approach him. But I kept bumping into him in the store, so I thought, God must want me to talk to him. I went up to him and explained that I was a photographer working on a book with biblical themes, and would he be willing to pose for me? And he agreed. As it turned out, he was a philosophy instructor at UCLA. And he was Jewish. So here I am, taking pictures for Max Lucado’s Christmas book Incredible Moments, and while I’m shooting, he’s telling me why Jesus can’t be the Messiah! Later on, I had a chance to send him a copy of the book. Though I never heard from him again, he did get to hear the gospel.
When I became a believer, I began to think of myself as a “missionary provocateur,” someone who would use the camera to provoke people into looking at both the presence and the absence of God in the world. People in miserable conditions, crime, pollution—that’s the absence of God. The presence of God is people getting in and helping, whether it’s filling sandbags or treating poor people in clinics. In the process of provoking them, I hope to also move them—to prayer, to giving of their finances, and to active involvement in God’s work.
Greg Schneider is a Jewish believer in Jesus, and a freelance photojournalist. He is married to Lane and has a daughter, Rachel, who lives in Seattle. Greg is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and Billy Graham’s Decision magazine, among many others. He is also an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Biola University. He and Lane front a jazz quartet called “Chopped Liver.” You can view his work at www.gregschneider.com