• John Palmer Gregg

The Secret Beauty of My Heart

I’m going to put all my cards on the table.

I’m a journalist – with an agenda.

There it is in black-and-white. I want whoever reads my stories, or looks at my photographs, or watches one of the videos I’ve produced to see the world the way I do. I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to believe the same truths I believe. I want you to hate the things I hate, and love the things I love.

Being biased in your reporting is seen as one of the most heinous sins one can commit in the journalistic world, falling a mere hair’s breadth below fabricating stories and photographs. The concept of getting “both sides of the story” is drilled into journalism students from day one. It’s so ingrained that only a few ever dare to question its rightness.

At this point you’re probably wondering what in the world this has to do with the accompanying portraits of men and women with developmentaldisabilities. On the face, I admit, they seem extremely incongruous.

Journalists have contributed greatly to our society, and to the spread of peace and democracy around the world. There are images from photojournalism which have so moved the world that they’re literally credited with ending war. There are stories that completely changed world opinion on our elected leaders. Journalists have collapsed regimes, exposed injustice, and helped end tyranny. And they did this not through showing ‘both sides of the story,’ but through biased reporting and intentional framing of both narratives and photographs alike.

So here I am admitting my bias. I claim my agenda proudly. I do have a message I’m pushing, even though it may be outside the bounds of what most people want to hear. That message is the great mystery of faith.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

I left the newspaper business almost ten years ago, when print media was just beginning to feel the looming presence of the internet. I was struggling with what it meant to be both a Christian and a journalist. What I came up with was nothing new to either realm. A good journalist stands up for those who have little voice in local, national, or world affairs. So does a Christian.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. ~Proverbs 31:8-9

That’s how I see my work now. I work with churches, ministries, and international mission agencies to help them better tell the stories of those who have little or no voice. Often this means describing needs and sharing how organizations are meeting those needs, but sometimes it means helping those organizations create materials designed to convince churches and individuals to donate to their work.

This project was different. I was given the task of speaking for a special group of people, to be their voice and help carry their message to others — those who often pretend these special people don’t exist. I was humbled and terrified. How could I speak for the residents at Riverwood in Louisville, Tennessee? How could I show the world who they are without resorting to pathos and platitudes?

In my photography I make an effort to break the fourth wall. When I succeed, the photograph becomes more than a well-crafted image or an interesting angle, because those are still walls. Instead, I want my photographs to become windows that beckon the viewer to climb through and share an experience with the subject. I want it to break down the invisible wall between audience and stage. Those pernicious walls we put up between our world, and the world of those people. I fail often. So often that when I succeed, I know it’s not my skill that captured the moment, but God working through my eyes and the little black box I hold in my hands.

I struggled with this project. I tried to figure out how to describe the residents and their lives to my viewers. It wasn’t until I pulled myself out of the equation that it made sense. This wasn’t my project. It wasn’t about my ministry explaining something. I was simply asked to help these people tell their story. To deliver the truths they wanted to share.

I typed the words and pressed the button on the camera, but I take no credit for their message.

**Editor’s Note: Click here to see the video that Palmer produced for this project, and be sure to check out the book he’ll be releasing on December 6th, entitled Some Glow Brightly.

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