Capture or Create? Photography and the Imago Dei

The divine image has massive implications for the digital image. If you don’t think so, you’re missing a huge part of what it means to be a photographer.

In my profession I am constantly “capturing.” That is how I approach my craft. Though I am not formally trained in photojournalism per se, I do approach portraiture with a photojournalist’s mindset. I observe. I story-tell. But I don’t truly create.

Before you get all up-in-arms about what it means to be creative, let me explain what I mean: All of the stuff I use to capture a digital image was created by God.

God Created it All

  • Light: The most important tool a photographer utilizes is light. I don’t have to tell you that God said it and then it was. I am grateful to Him each time I shoot because His gift of light enables me to do my job.
  • Camera Technology: Cameras have come a long way. I am so thankful I don’t have to invent the incredible tools I have at my disposal every day. There is, however, some genius somewhere in Silicon Valley researching this technology and he is working with . . . dust. Yeah, I said it: dust. God created the earth out of dust and ever since we have never gotten over all of the different combinations we can come up with to fashion these things together with it.
  • People: Most of what I do is some type of portraiture: a musician’s album booklet, marketing spreads, and sometimes wedding photography. When it comes to capturing the content of my photos, I use light (which God created out of nothing) to fix an image of one of His creatures who, according to Genesis 1, bears the image of the Living God. In this sense I am not creating, I am merely casting my perspective on God’s creation and sharing it with others.

Now, I do think being “creative” is a testament to a creative God but I don’t think we can/should compare ourselves to an artist who created everything out of nothing. This is why I say “capture” instead of “create.” Perhaps more so than any art form, photography should remind us of our utter dependence on the supreme Creative.  Every day I spend with my camera I am chasing the divine image housed in His creation. Thanks be to God that He created it all.

And, He created it all with ultimate skill and beauty.

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10 thoughts on “Capture or Create? Photography and the Imago Dei

  1. Great post! My wife and I are photographers as well and are constantly reminded through images & being on location how His creation is amazing! We can't comprehend the thought of this creation being happenstance!

  2. Devin,

    I love the overall sentiment of this post, but I have to disagree with you. One of the major implications of the fact that we are created in the image of God is the fact that we do indeed create. You are very correct to point out that God is the only one that creates out of nothing or "ex nihilo" and that is the defining difference. This, however, does not mean that we don't create. I would encourage you to check out "Art and the Bible" by Francis Schaeffer. In it, he says:

    "When I was younger, I thought it was wrong to use the word create in reference to works of art. I thought it ought to be used solely in relation to what God can do. Later, I saw that I was desperately wrong; I am now convinced that it is important to understand that both God and man create. Both make something. The distinction is this: God, because He is infinite, can create out of nothing by His spoken world. We, because we are finite, must create from something else that has already been created. Yet the word create is appropriate, for it suggests that what man does with what is already there is to make something new."

    • Aaron, thanks for your comment! I have to admit, after taking a course in Art and Theology in seminary I came down against Schaeffer on this point. We read Art and the Bible and I wasn't persuaded. I like Thomas Merton's remark, "By artistic and creative insight, man rises above the material elements and outer appearance of things and sees into their nature. By the disciplined exercise of his art he is enabled to draw forth the glory of God that is hidden in created beauty and make it manifest in the world." I think we can easily drift into narcissism when we view ourselves as creators rather than simply those that are pointing to the glory of God embedded in creation. I want here to guard creatives against that mistake. Now, that is not entirely to say that we are not doing creative work, but I think it is creative in a limited and truly finite sense of the word (which is what I think you are saying?). I concede your point that we image God by "creating" in a limited sense of the word, but in this post I am attempting to point us toward minimizing the work of self and exalting the work of Christ. I don't think I disagree with you totally, but I do mean to critique Schaeffer on this point: the term create might not be the most appropriate term for a photographer. God creates, photographers capture.

      Love this type of engagement! Iron sharpens iron. Blessings.

      • Cool… I had a feeling you would be pretty familiar with Schaeffer's work. :)
        I've not read Art and the Bible in some time, so I can't say whether I'd agree with him 100% on everything. My memory was just triggered to it when I read your post.

        I definitely agree with you that we have to be careful to avoid narcissism, and I think as long as we clearly define the difference between what God does (in creating from nothing) and what we do (whether it be creating or capturing), then we're pretty much on the same page. I don't have an issue with the term "create" again because I think it relates to our being created in God's image.

        I believe (but of course don't know fully) that Schaeffer's point is that we are making something new, and so we are creating. I would definitely say this is the case with art with activities such as sculpture and even painting. The artist is using materials to create something new and different from the pile of materials that it was before. This however is different from that of photography in the sense that you truly are "capturing" what is there. But I do wonder, if the development process and/or editing process in digital photography could constitute creating in Schaeffer's mind.

        Anyway, I'm rambling now… Thanks for the very thoughtful post!

        • Aaron, more good thoughts! The editing process is a bit nuanced because it engages the imagination in a different way than photography proper. You make a GREAT point there. At that point the problem departs from a question about photography and gets at the aesthetic philosophical conundrum, “What is art?” which in turn asks, “Can we make something new?” Certainly worthy of more exploration!

        • Aaron, more good thoughts! We are really now getting into the aesthetic conundrum, "What is art," and therefore, "Can we make something that is truly new?" Photoshop is really a whole different artistic step beyond the camera that engages the imagination in a totally different way. Certainly worthy of more consideration. Thanks!

  3. "Every day I spend with my camera I am chasing the divine image housed in His creation." This is such a nice sentence.

    The dialogue above is interesting too.

    I think you're right, Devin, to foreground the way the language of creating already evokes God's singular act of creation ex nihilo. Moreover, though you could look elsewhere for instances of man 'creating' as a possible expression of the imago dei, in the Genesis story, the humans do no creating. We instead find Adam given the task of 'naming'.

    So perhaps he is doing more than simply 'capturing' or documenting or cataloguing what's there, what God has created. His is a constructive act by which he participates in God's singular act of creating. This language of participation is helpful to me because, on the hand, it guards against your rightly held concern with artists conceiving of themselves in a godlike manner of 'creating', and on the other hand, it recognizes that what photographers do is not a neutral act of simply reporting what's there. The photographer sees what's there (that which God has created) and constructively 'names' it, that is, decides how to characterize it in a particular way, with (almost) limitless freedom in how to do so.

    Just some quick thoughts. What do you think?

    • Matt,

      Really, really good thoughts. If I were a cynic I would assume they weren't quick at all! I like your take on it because it is grounded in a doctrine of Christian work that seems firmly rooted in strong biblical theology. I could also get behind your perspective based on where the Apostle Paul talks about our status as "co-heirs" with Christ. I am just not sure where we are on the spectrum between the two kingdoms. The question is about extent, which is always a philosophical category that needs lots of room to discourse. Thanks for stopping by and hope you come back!

  4. Thanks for the reply. sorry I didn't see it til now. 'quick' is a relative term. For someone who writes as slowly as I do, a blog comment in under 10 minutes is considered 'quick'. :)

    I enjoyed your post and look forward to more.