WORDS | JESSICA BILLS
PHOTOS | KATEY LEE & FLETCHER PERKINS
LETTERING | SAM PALENCIA
The story of Jessica Bills
My camera is a tool of ministry. But it took me a while to realize this.
I first picked up a camera when I was 12 years old and I fell in love with landscapes. Then, in my awkward teenage high school way, I found comfort and belonging by joining the yearbook as a photographer. (That was when I learned not to hate taking pictures of people.)
My relationship with my camera shaped my college plans. I was between two schools, and the one I chose to attend had a photojournalism concentration. Throughout college, my camera, a Pentax K7, and I spent many, many, many hours together. I was a staff photographer for three student publications and did a bit of freelancing on the side. I was photographing something or someone almost everyday.
But for the first three years of college, my camera was about me. It was about my pride, making myself look good, and exploiting my talents; I even switched my major to a more photo-based one. The hourly infliction of comparing myself to other photographers destroyed my spirit and my love of taking pictures; and the rise of Instagram didn’t help either. I sacrificed what I enjoyed posting or shooting for what I knew would get more likes. It was disgusting. It was cheap. And I knew it. But I didn’t care.
I didn’t care because I did not see my photography as a gift from God. I saw it as a way to attain much-needed affirmation. By my junior year in college, I had risen through the ranks of the publications I worked for at school and they even created an editorial position for me that put me in charge of all the photos and photographers for all three publications.
I should have been full of affirmation, but instead I was in a very bitter relationship with my camera. My identity was completely entangled, ensnared, and became more convoluted with every shutter release. I put so much pressure on myself to be the best that I didn’t even see how negatively this was affecting my being.
Eventually, I hit a breaking point at a photojournalism conference at a seminary in Texas (because that’s where all breaking points happen, you know). But seriously, I realized that trying to please others is the absolute worst.
Like Paul told us in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
My identity was not in Christ. In fact, it was nowhere near Christ. It was purely about how other people valued my talent.
After realizing how much I had let pride damage my relationship with photography, I took a break. Taking a step back from your work, your job, your source of income, etc. can be terrifying. In the moment it feels like it will never get better. But God’s faithfulness is always true and on the shores of an Alaskan island where I was working as a camp counselor, He showed me what photography could do.
I’ve always heard that photographers are supposed to be visual storytellers. I’d always heard that we are supposed to show something through our photographs that others can’t see. But I’d never realized what photography could be if I fully handed this gift over to God and let Him help me make it a talent.
Now, almost 15 months later, I can say whole-heartedly: My camera is a tool of ministry. Sometimes it means being gracious in how much I charge a couple for a wedding. Sometimes it means diminishing the lies of insecurity during a portrait session. And just as God sees us for who we are, I think photographers have been given this gift in order to show people a different side of themselves.
When I’m not photographing things or editing wedding photos, I’m with my church family, with my real family, or with my friend family. I sometimes pester loved ones with my ukulele playing, I most definitely watch through Gilmore Girls once a year (God bless Netflix), and my favorite food is chai lattes. I’m a summertime Alaskan and a recent journalism and Christian behavioral science college graduate.
I’m hoping to become a counselor for a church and to continue to photograph people so I can encourage them to get to know their Savior more.
Life is wild. I am often a mess. But God is God and I am Jess.