Don Rutledge- My Mentor



by Stanley Leary

Figure 1
I am processing film at the Hickory Daily Record when I get a phone call from Don Rutledge. He told me about an entry-level photographer position for the International Mission Board.
The chance to learn from Don Rutledge was one of the best opportunities in my life. While I wanted Don to look at my work, it was Don taking time to walk me through his contact sheets that helped me the most.
Don’s storytelling with his camera helped missionaries realize God's calling for them. Those impacted by his work is vast.  Just as vast as his stories are those he mentored.
Figure 2
Unless Don was on the phone his door was open at the office. While I worked with Don I cannot remember how many people that came by or called to ask for Don’s advice. No matter how bad their work, Don treated each and everyone with honor, dignity and respect.
He always looked for something positive to talk about with them. I learned that when Don would look through my contact sheets, if he passed over a sheet, then he couldn’t find anything positive to say about it. He was often very quiet while looking at my work early on.  He would then reach for his contact sheets to talk—rather than say my work stunk.
Figure 3
What Don taught me is how important it is to not use visual gimmicks to create interest in a subject. Don taught me to learn how to compose a scene like you might see a stage in theater. When the curtain rises the composition has been done, but then the scene develops. The audience doesn’t get different camera angles; they see the subjects moving in the scene. Don helped me to understand the rise, the peak and the fall of the action. He showed me my contact sheets should show this rise, peak and fall.
Figure 4
Don then taught me how important it was to understand body language. I remember him showing me a series on a contact sheet. See the mother reaching out to the baby.  See how just before she touches the baby it is more powerful image than we she actually touches the baby. The anticipation is stronger than the actual touch. He then reminded me of Michael Angelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of the creation of Adam. Reaching of God and not touching.
Don understood how important the relationship of people to each other in the photo is the real power of the storytelling image.
Figure 5
Don understood that his God gave his life for a relationship with each one of us. Nothing was more important than to establish and grow relationships. All of Don’s work was to show the power of God’s love. You either see the celebration of God’s love or you feel the sadness of someone who isn’t letting God into their life.
Don helped me to realize how I could fulfill my call to ministry with the camera. Don was a pastor who realized the camera was a pulpit and the congregation wasn’t limited by the walls of a church.
Figure 6
My clients today tell me often how much they like my storytelling. My success is due to Don taking me under his wing and teaching me.
Some of my friends who were also mentored by Don have commented to me that they can see Don’s influence in my work. While this always brings a tear and lump in my throat it has been photographers who thank me for teaching them that makes me the proudest.
The greatest way I have to honor Don is to make photos that respect the subject and tell their story. Also helping other photographers like Don helped me is a way to pay it forward.
I can never thank Don enough for helping me to see the world through God's eyes.
Editor’s Note:  Don Rutledge, was Promoted to Glory this month and is at rest in the arms of the God he served and loved.  The personality of his work now lives in the coverage of the many photographers he has influence along his life’s journey.