Develop an eagle eye for wonder

Near the northern Illinois farm where I grew up and where my parents still live stands a bald eagles’ nest. It’s about 100 yards back from the road, atop a tall oak tree overlooking the Piscasaw Creek. Miles of cornfields surround this little meadow where cattle graze  — not exactly where you’d picture majestic eagles soaring. But for whatever reason, there they are. They’ve been there, year-round, about 10 years now.

Whenever I drive out to the farm, I take a longer-than-necessary route in order to check out the nest. Often I’ll spot an eagle perched high in a nearby tree, scanning the creek for fish. Or the nest area will be empty, but then a mile later I’ll see an eagle gliding 50 feet above the grass, hunting field mice. Late spring is especially active, as eggs hatch and the mature birds care for their chicks, eventually unfeathering the nest and providing do-or-die flight lessons.

Even though I grew up here, it took me a few years to realize that northern Illinois — as flat as a basketball court mostly — contains a storehouse of natural wonder. Eagles are only the beginning. Deer, fox, coyotes, beavers, river otters and woodchucks can be spotted regularly if you know where to look. Pheasants, red-tailed hawks, owls, turkeys and great blue herons thrive here. Annual migratory routes bring white pelicans and even sand hill cranes.

Most times when I pull off the road to watch an eagle, a dozen or so cars pass without slowing down. The drivers either don’t know, don’t care or are in too much of a hurry to be distracted. That’s nice, in that I get these moments all to myself. But it’s sad that one of God’s most majestic creatures is perched there in plain sight and hardly anyone realizes it.

When I’m in a good season as a writer and photographer, my sense of wonder is set to high. A bald eagle, a quiet stream or a snow-covered woods point me to God’s artistry and infinite creativity. I recognize his handiwork, and the inclination is not only to quietly enjoy those moments, but also to capture them as best I can for the benefit of others.

Writers and visual journalists can steward God’s glory by taking good care of his stories. Those may occur on a grand scale, like whole communities finding hope and healing because they’ve received portions of the Bible for the first time. They might occur on a personal scale, like a prodigal son returning to his family or his faith.

Or a simple, wondrous moment in Illinois farm country might provide an unmistakable glimpse of God’s peace. Wherever we may find ourselves, an ever-developing sense of wonder opens our eyes to countless stories and images that others might drive right past.

Then we get to show them what they missed.

Posted in Faith, Photography, Writing | Tagged , , ,

A Thousand Pictures



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Common themes reduce cultural distance

Effective stories can result from simply spotting familiar themes in unfamiliar cultures. For a Seed Company-engaged project in Guatemala, Bible translators provided quick, personal stories about Scripture-related conversations with friends. Here’s one:

One day, Jakalteko translator Josefa was talking with a friend who had abandoned her faith. She told Josefa about adversities that happened in her time away from the Lord.

Josefa and her friend began reading Psalms and Proverbs together in the Jakalteko language. Finally, her friend reconciled with God, but she had great anguish because her children had become rebellious. More concerning, her husband was not a Christian. He drank a lot of alcohol and beat her.

Josefa prayed for her friend and shared her burdens. Eight months after becoming a Christian, her friend’s husband left the house and began drinking heavily. Later, he came to church weeping, saying he understood that he needed Christ. He accepted the Lord as his Savior. Their children are seeing a great change in their parents.

You can read more stories from the Guatemala Cluster here.

Short pieces like this work because they bridge cultural gaps and find common ground with the audience. Rebellious children and dysfunctional marriages are, sadly, universal human experiences. For Christians, so is the longing for a loved one to come to Christ. Just about any American reader could relate to Josefa and her friend. Find those kinds of universal themes, and how they interact with heart-language Scripture, and you’ve found impact stories.

Sure, there are times when it’s interesting to highlight cultural differences or even what we might call oddities. But remember, this isn’t National Geographic. Our audiences need to see that when we find common ground with people in other cultures — when we treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than “those poor people who need our help” — we honor them rather than exploit them.

That starts to look more like heaven.

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Miracles: Handle with care

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That jarring statement used to hang in Chicago’s famed City News Bureau as an admonishment to reporters.

In the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago journalism, it simply meant to verify all claims with eyewitness accounts.

In reporting about the works of God, we are particularly careful on the subject of miracles. If someone has experienced dramatic healing, we’ll recount what happened and attribute it to the source:

Steve remembers waking up that day and feeling dramatically better. When a doctor examined him, she found no evidence of the tumor.

But we won’t say:

Steve woke up that day to a miracle: God had removed all traces of the tumor.

It’s not that we don’t believe the person’s story. God can and does heal people miraculously. And if readers choose to believe that God performed a miracle in this case, based on the answers we have heard and the information we present, then so be it.

But I’ve also seen the word miracle used to label everything from a resurrection to football comebacks to finding a parking space. Which means we treat the word, and the subject, cautiously.

In his thoughtful book, Miracles, journalist Tim Stafford writes:

People exaggerate. People pass on stories without checking their facts. People eagerly report miracles when there aren’t any. …

Some Christian circles inadvertently encourage exaggeration. They create an atmosphere where Christians feel obliged to believe reports of miracles. If you express skepticism or suggest that more information is needed, they show disappointment in your lack of faith. True Christians, it seems, don’t have any doubts; they experience miracles everywhere they turn.

I’ll say it loud and clear: I believe in miracles, but I don’t believe in most reports of miracles.

We’ve chosen this approach to reporting about a supernatural event: If it’s going to be mentioned, the report needs to come from an eyewitness. Not someone who heard about it from someone else, who heard about it from someone else. If the eyewitness talks about the occurrence, we quote them or at least attribute the information to them. It’s never our “narrator’s” voice claiming the miracle, unless we have witnessed it firsthand. At least for me, that hasn’t happened yet.

This all boils down to relentlessly pursuing the truth while celebrating the works of God, and those two goals fit together quite nicely. Our source for this approach is no less than the Gospel writer Luke:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NIV)

I think Luke would have liked working at City News Bureau.

Posted in Ethics, Faith, Reporting, Writing | Tagged , , ,

Civilization and graphic design



This graphic represents not only one of my favorite quotes, but also what you can create in five minutes on a website called It’s kind of a layman’s substitute for PhotoShop and InDesign. Not nearly as versatile as those two industry-standard applications, but a nice tool for creating quick infographics, social media slides and many other visual communication pieces. You can use your own photos and illustrations, or Canva’s. Theirs usually range in price from free to a dollar or two. Then you simply download your finished product as a jpg, png or pdf.

Credit to Esther Havens for the photo, from a 2016 Seed Company story trip to Slovakia. This little girl was one of hundreds of Roma kids who play in the streets of a village called Hlinne. As we walked and dodged the joyous clamor, I thought about that Durant quote. Not much headline news ever comes from a place like this … but wonderful stories sure do.

Posted in Culture, Photography, Story | Tagged , , ,

Build trust through the reporting process

Reporting stories from project sites can be a wonderful trust builder among organizations and their prayer and financial partners. This requires care, because it’s just as easy to violate that trust if the people you interview or photograph are surprised by how the information gets used.

To keep those relationships healthy, here’s the process we follow at Seed Company:

Before your visit

As much as possible, communicate that you will be visiting and gathering stories. If you’re already a familiar face there, then convey specifically that you will be doing interviews and shooting photos and/or video, and how that material might be used.

During your visit

Use consent/release forms if practical (see below). At minimum, make a verbal agreement through an interpreter. Explain to everyone you interview why you are there, what information you are collecting and how you plan to use it. Field partners and people they work with tend to grant consent freely, sometimes without understanding the wide and long reach of online information. It is your responsibility to communicate this.

After your visit

Before anything is published, the field coordinator and, when possible, the field partner should review the material for accuracy and security concerns. This often involves give and take about security. The field partner always gets the last word on what may be published in print and online. No story or visual is worth damaging a partner relationship or making someone feel that their security has been violated.

After publication

The field partner should get to see the published work. When possible, send print copies and send links to online material. Knowing that the person will see the material is a good safeguard against exploiting them and their situation, or robbing someone of their dignity.

I won’t say this process is always perfect. We recently had a slip where the subject was surprised to see his photo published, and some of the information in the story was inaccurate. Something got misunderstood in translation. Once we learned of the problem we immediately took the story down and now are working with the field partner to correct the story.

Consent/release forms

When interviewing, photographing or shooting video of people on project sites, it’s a great idea to have  consent/release forms handy. Here’s what the Seed Company’s form says:

I hereby give and grant to Seed Company the right to use my name and/or the right to photograph or videotape my physical likeness in any manner whatsoever and/or the right to reproduce and record my voice and other sound effects made by me. Also, I hereby consent to the use of my name, my comments and/or the recordings and reproductions of my voice and other sound effects, by Seed Company, their licensees, successors and assigns, in or in connection with the production, exhibition, distribution, advertising and exploitation and/or other use of any Seed Company’s print publications, websites, social media, events and/or otherwise.

Telephone and/or email:

If under age 18, parent or guardian:

We don’t always use these forms, especially in contexts where the people don’t speak English and would not know what they are signing. If possible before your trip, get the form translated into the local language. Sometimes, especially in extremely remote areas or oral cultures, a verbal agreement is enough. Simply make sure the person understands and agrees to how we are going to use the material. We also work closely with our field coordinators on this, so neither they nor the partner are ever surprised by what’s published.

Posted in Ethics, Reporting, sensitivity | Tagged , ,

How to remove geotags from cellphone photos

Photos from sensitive places pose a challenge in telling stories. While conversations often center on creative ways to shoot a photo, or how to obscure someone’s face or location, one important factor tends to be neglected.

Digital photos have invisible fingerprints. It’s called metadata and it includes a long list of information about the exposure, the time the photo was taken … and the exact place, called the geotag. If someone downloads your photo, they can quickly see all of that information.

Most of today’s smartphones and many digital cameras have this GPS-based feature. This article explains how to find geotags on existing photos.

The best way to avoid this problem is to make sure GPS information is never recorded.

To turn off geotagging:

iPhone: Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Camera > choose “Never,” for regarding location access.


To remove geotags from existing photos:

iPhone instructions. You will need a free app called Koredoko, or another app listed in the article.

Windows instructions.

If none of these work for you, try this link, or simply Google “remove geotags from (name of your device) photos.”

Posted in Photography, sensitivity, Technology | Tagged ,