By Naomi Nelson

I am a photographer, and my main objective as an artist is to capture the beauty of the ordinary, and in doing so, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

“God created the beauty. My camera and I are the witness.”

Mark Denman

I started learning how to use a professional camera when I was about 12 years old, and for several years I focused on photographing nature – nature as in flowers, trees, mountains, etc. I was naturally drawn towards the innate beauty of God’s creation because it is obvious to the eye. I couldn’t pass by a flower or a sunset over a mountain landscape without instantly recognizing its beauty and wanting to capture it for others. My talent and passion as an artist grew steadily for several years, but it wasn’t until I was 18 that I discovered a real purpose in my art. It all changed when I gathered the courage to capture God’s greatest creation: man and woman. What’s more ordinary than human nature? We are all bonded by our common human nature and communal participation in life. But it’s this very commonness and ordinariness of life that causes us to pass by it without thought. We take the beauty of God’s most beautiful creation – you, me, our families, our friends, everyone around us – for granted.

Most of us look in a mirror at least twice a day; we stare into this mirror and see our reflection, but that mirror doesn’t just show us a reflection of ourselves. Ultimately, we are all reflections of God, in whose image and likeness we were created. Yes, “seeing God’s beauty in the world” involves recognizing the beauty of nature and the world God created for us, but seeing God’s beauty in the world goes beyond simply stopping to smell the roses. You first need to see God’s beauty in yourself and second see God’s beauty in others. For some of you, one may be harder than the other – both can be difficult in their own ways – but most of us probably need that reminder to really recognize with our hearts and minds (not just see with our eyes) God’s beauty in human nature and give thanks to Him for it.

So, how do we do it? Oftentimes, universal truths are quite simple in concept but much more difficult in application. The reason it is more difficult to put such truths into practice in our lives is because we have a tendency to overcomplicate. The answer is so simple that we look right past it. So, how do we begin to see God’s beauty in ourselves and one another? Love.

Seeing God in others through the lens of a camera and having the ability to share that beauty with others has been one of my greatest joys in the art of photography. It can be very easy for us to see the beauty of a friend or family member, but what about a stranger or an enemy? How do we see beauty in them? It is easy to see beauty in a friend or a family member because we know their heart – we know their likes and dislikes, their weaknesses and strengths, their successes and failures, and we have shared their life experiences. But with strangers or enemies we often forget the one fundamental truth that ties all of us together. We forget that we are all participants of life in a fallen world. That stranger at the bus stop who hides their face might be hiding a physical scar or, more likely, an emotional scar. You can never know someone’s heart until you encounter them with an open mind.

More often than not, we judge others based off of external impressions – the way a person looks or acts. However, it is a person’s internal being that holds the truth of their beauty. Through photography, I have learned not only to create a photograph that illustrates the external truths of a person’s beauty but primarily their internal beauty. In our imperfectness, we fail to fully see the beauty of those around us, but we can trust that God knows us and we can attempt to imitate Him and see with His eyes. “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). He knows our hearts perfectly – the good and the bad – and He loves us more infinitely than we could ever imagine. We need to imitate this love. We need to see the beautiful good – God’s reflection – in our family, in our friends, but most importantly, in the stranger and our enemies.

Seeing God in ourselves can sometimes be the greatest battle of all. We scrutinize ourselves physically in the mirror of a bathroom, and we scrutinize ourselves spiritually in the mirror of a confessional. This self-deprecation usually stems from a twisted idea of humility. We create the lie in our minds that we are so broken that we are unworthy, unlovable, and no longer beautiful. However, real humility is seeing ourselves for who we truly are as God sees us: sons and daughters of Christ. Yes, we are broken. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we do not deserve His merciful love. But it is in this very weakness that we find our strength. Without our brokenness, we do not need God the Healer. Without our sins, we do not need the Cross. Without our weaknesses, we do not need His Love. So, when you look in the mirror or when someone points a camera at you, embrace your beauty as a son or daughter of Christ! Of course, it is important not to fall into the opposite extreme of vanity, but never believe yourself to be unworthy or unlovable in the ugliness of sin for it is by God’s infinite love that we are made beautiful. “Our faults are grains of sand beside the great mountain of the mercies of God” (St. John Vianney).

As a photographer, I often dream about expensive cameras, lenses, equipment, and editing programs that I could use to make myself a better artist. I think, “Once I get that camera or that lens, I can reach my full potential.” But that’s a lie. A true artist creates art not by the talent of the medium but by the talent of his hand. Even though it is usually my bank account that keeps me from buying various photography accessories, I need to continue to remind myself of that truth, and I think we need to do the same in our spiritual lives. We say, “Once I finish this exam or once I graduate college or once I get married, then I will be happy…then I will be able to fully give myself over to God.” But that’s a lie. It is a lie that we need to boldly denounce. We need to act now in our relationship with God. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes….You must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:59).

God will always be waiting for us with open arms, so we must be awake and rise up to go to Him. That relationship begins with love, and we cannot fully love God without loving others and ourselves. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). We need to continually remind ourselves of this truth: that we need to love God with our whole heart right now – not tomorrow, not next week – right now, and we need to love Him by seeing His beauty in his greatest creation: mankind.