BRINGING MERCY INTO FOCUS
We all live as part of a greater story. How we understand that story deeply affects how we live and how we envision and embody our purpose on earth.
As followers of Christ, we find our hope in God’s grand rescue story — an incredible narrative that not even the greatest author, scriptwriter or lyricist could fully imagine. Man and woman were created in the image of God, placed in a perfect world to live in relationship with Him. Yet out of our rebellion, sin entered the cosmos, leading to chaos and disorder. The ultimate answer to x our fragmented world, the hero of the story, comes alive in Jesus.
Fast forward to where we are currently in the story — living in light of God’s plan for redemption. Our ultimate purpose as believers is to participate in the plan of God to bring order back into chaos — to point to the coming day when He will make all things perfect and whole, returning the world to the way it was intended to be.
For professional photographer Aaron Anderson, his calling and his vocation walk hand in hand. “I see art as the ability to organize something in a way that’s understandable,” he says.
Whether solving a math problem, organizing a messy house, or skillfully navigating complex business issues, Aaron believes our God-given mandate plays out in greater ways than we might realize. He sees it like this: “We have the instructions and the vision — we know what it’s supposed to look like, let’s go start putting things back together.”
Aaron’s ability to express order, beauty and purpose through his photography has not gone unnoticed. Companies including Coca-Cola, ESPN, Google and Tazo have all sought out his talents for commercial projects. His journey is an
unorthodox one that testifies to God’s faithfulness and the value of hard work and perseverance.
Having grown up in the Bay Area of California, Aaron moved with his family to Colorado Springs when he was 12 years old. He met his wife, Joy, in California and a seemingly random moment in their story set the stage for Aaron’s photography passion.
“I bought my wife a camera. She started taking a few pictures, but one day I gave the camera a try, and she just never got it back,” he laughs. Aaron and the camera were soon inseparable. “I think with photography, the way you get good at it is by doing it a ton. I would go to class all day, shoot after that, and edit through the night. Then do it all again.”
He graduated from the Academy of Art in San Francisco several years ago and then he and Joy returned to the Springs. Aaron worked at a local scuba shop until his clientele base expanded enough to allow him to focus on photography full time.
In an industry that’s solely focused on profit and has an “every man for himself” mentality, Aaron is intentional about valuing people, whether they’re clients, models or crew. No matter who he’s working with, he strives to love them well. As part of Aaron’s call to reflect God’s creative goodness, he generously shares his talents with Woodmen, his home church. Check out the cover of the edition of Launch 17 for a sample.
Don McCaleb, the church’s senior creative director, says, “Aaron is amazing. When he texts about meeting for coffee, I’ll always say yes — even though it will probably be at an insanely early hour, and his choice in coffee shops may be mediocre. Why say yes? Because the combination of passion, creativity, drive and talent that Aaron squeezes into each project is mind-blowing. I know that after every conversation with him, I’ll come away challenged, inspired and encouraged to make the world a better place.”
Portraits of Hope
It was Aaron’s heart for others that led him on an incredible journey over the past year and a half. The outcome of that journey mayhaveeventouchedyouasyouwalkedthroughthehallsof Woodmen or turned the pages of the 2016 Launch journal.
“I was working in the studio one day, developing some new portrait lighting ideas,” Aaron explains. “The lighting setup was so tightly focused that your vision was centered solely on the subject’s eyes and face. And for some reason — I remember the moment distinctly — I thought, ‘We need to take pictures of homeless people.’”
Aaron’s idea was to use photography to reflect the dignity of people experiencing homelessness. “My mind immediately went to what I’ve always fought against in my career — the objectification of people — and how we can easily walk by homeless people and see them as objects instead of people.”
Aaron connected with some friends, including Stu Davis, Springs Rescue Mission’s Community Relations Director, and together they began to dream big about what it would look like to take pictures of homeless people, print them really big (four by six feet), and have them displayed in a museum. It was a lofty goal, because most museums curate their own exhibits and often schedule them years in advance.
Over the course of two days, Aaron and his team sat down in an intimate studio setting with 16 individuals. Out of 30 minutes for each portrait, they spent 25 minutes talking to each person to hear their stories, and fivve minutes taking photos. Aaron’s ultimate goal was to produce pictures that led viewers to be interested in each individual’s story. And the stories he heard were heart-wrenching and difficult to portray — accounts of abuse, tragedy, and long, arduous journeys.
“You realize what a privilege it is to take pictures of these people. It’s a big deal that they would stand in front of my camera and trust me to portray them in a way that is honoring and true to themselves.”
Aaron knew he had something special. But then came the hard work — guring out how to get these images into a museum. Aaron realized it was ridiculous to think they were going to pull off such an expensive and ambitious museum exhibit on such short notice.
“Sometimes I think God needs us to say, ‘This is crazy, but we’re going to do it anyway, and it’s going to be awesome,’” Aaron says. “He meets us when we have a childlike faith.”
Miraculously, the grant money started to come in for the printing. Then God blew Aaron’s expectations out of the water. Aaron had asked the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs to display the images for a weekend; they let him know they would exhibit his pictures for three months!
Vision for the Future
At the grand opening of the exhibit, called Periphery, hundreds of people came out to support the project. The exhibit soon took on a life of its own, serving as a catalyst for helping people experiencing homelessness. A real estate group used the pictures to get a $5 million grant to help develop housing in Colorado Springs. The images have been displayed in several churches and coffee shops, and made into a coffee-table book, all to raise awareness of homelessness in our city.
At the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions 2017 Media Innovation competition, Springs Rescue Mission won a prestigious Best in Show award for Aaron’s portraits. Other photographers have reached out and said that, inspired by Aaron’s project, they have similar shoots planned in their communities. A year-and-a-half after Aaron shot the project, the ripples continue.
“Aaron’s creativity and expertise have been such an incredible asset to our community,” says Stu. “The project he did for SRM has catapulted the visibility of men and women facing homelessness, not only here in the Springs, but around the country. He is a craftsman and a storyteller, but he’s not a ‘Christian artist.’ He’s an artist who lets the gospel shine through his craft.”
The massive, nationwide impact of this project hasn’t left Aaron satis ed. Instead, it’s inspired him to dream bigger. He’s begun collaborating with other local artists. “How do we follow this and use our gifts in a way that positively impacts our culture and community?” he asks. “What does it look like to come together as artists and produce high-quality, creative pieces that help others? As an artist community we have a purpose and a responsibility for what we do. It’s important that we use what we have to help — to give people a voice who otherwise wouldn’t have one.”
We each have opportunities to participate in God’s big story, to use our gifts to help restore order to our fallen world and bring beauty from brokenness. If God can use one man and his camera to inspire hope and dignity for so many, just imagine what He could do with your dreams.