Photographer Rutledge leaves legacy of really seeing people

Meredith Flynn —  March 4, 2013

HEARTLAND | Meredith Flynn

Don_RutledgePhotojournalist Don Rutledge, who chronicled Southern Baptist missions efforts for 30 years, died Feb. 19 at the age of 82. Many who knew and worked with him have written beautiful eulogies about his life, and his commitment to tell people’s true stories is evident in his pictures, of a poverty-stricken couple in Mississippi, Alaskan Eskimos in the Arctic Circle, inmates in a Filipino prison, and many more. (See a gallery of Rutledge’s work at

I never met Mr. Rutledge, but I’ve heard about his work many times. His name was one that often popped up in conversation, as I got more interested in photography and how pictures could communicate spiritual needs. When I read Erich Bridges’ column about his life, I was amazed at the things he accomplished – as a Southern Baptist! Here was someone who did so many of the things photographers dream about: he shot for top magazines (like Life and Look), served as a staff photographer for Black Star photo agency, and, with with pictures, helped tell the story of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.


In Soviet-era Siberia, 30 new Christians walk resolutely down a hill to be baptized in a river. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back” were more than words for them. Photo by Don Rutledge for the International Mission Board


And then, Bridges writes, “At the height of his potential as a globe-trotting photographer, Rutledge left Black Star in 1966 to shoot pictures for the then-Home Mission Board in Atlanta.” He worked there until 1980, when he joined the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). There, Rutledge played a key role in establishing The Commission magazine as a top publication, especially in its use of photography. Bridges writes, “His images helped millions to understand, pray for and participate in missions.”

Rutledge saw his ministry clearly. In his own words, from Bridges’ article: “I love photojournalism and enjoy using it as a worldwide Christian ministry,” he 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 gives my ‘seeing’ a newness and a freshness as I work to communicate the Christian messages I want to convey. It helps me translate the national and international ministries into human terms by telling the story through people rather than through statistics.”

-With information from

Meredith Flynn


Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.