Jodi’s Journal: Faith Through Frames creates priceless portraits

June 15, 2019

Steve Johnson thought maybe his camera could help him start a little side business.

It led him to a calling instead.

Go to church with any kind of regularity, and you’ve probably heard the same kind of request that Johnson did a few years ago at Peace Lutheran Church. It was the annual call to sign up to volunteer in some way.

Johnson checked the box marked “photography.”

“I wanted to start my own photography business,” he said. “I’ve been an enthusiast ever since I graduated college decades ago. Mostly just when I was out for a hike, I’d take my camera along, and then it turned into taking my camera everywhere and taking pictures of what I see.”

So he checked the box. And then didn’t hear anything.

“I thought maybe there wasn’t a need,” he said.

He checked it again a year later in 2017.

And then someone from the church called and said they wanted to start a weekly social media post – “Pieces of Peace” – to highlight church members and events.

He started taking photos of people for the first time, and he liked it. He remembered some advice he’d received from a professional photographer who, like Johnson, enjoyed taking photos of nature.

“She said, ‘People pay me. Not animals.’ It was a good point,” he said. “And the more I started doing work at the church I thought it was time to look into starting my own business because I enjoyed it so much and it would be nice to get a paycheck.”

So he started doing research, and he prayed.

“I asked God for guidance on what I should do,” he said. “And this idea popped in my head: There are people in Sioux Falls who need the service and can’t afford it. Why don’t you see if you can help?”

He talked to his church leaders and started attending a monthly event called Necessities for Neighbors, which provides those in need with basic household and personal care items. And he started offering to take family portraits. His initiative – Faith Through Frames – was born.

“It started pretty slow,” he said. “But once people started seeing the framed pictures as they were standing in line to get their items, it started taking off.”

That might be a bit of an understatement.

Johnson now takes photographs at the church one Saturday each month for six hours straight. He tries to fit a dozen portraits in.

Then, he got connected with Church on the Street, a ministry that meets in Heritage Park. So he goes to the service once a month and takes photos there. It primarily serves the homeless or those in group living situations.

Johnson once photographed a mother and son who had just gotten an apartment.

“And the picture I took was the first they got to hang up in their place,” he said.

Another photo became the only one a couple had after losing a home to fire.

His photos for single mothers are especially powerful, he said.

“They’re struggling to get by, and the cost of trying to get a portrait with their kids is not within their reach,” he said. “And I’ve noticed it’s the kids dragging their mothers up to take their picture because the kids want the picture.”

He orders the prints online, buy frames and frames each one. His congregation originally donated money for the frames and then came an even bigger gift.

The Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation awarded Johnson a $2,000 grant through the church after learning about his project earlier this year.

“We all have a story, and our stories deserve to be chronicled,” said Patrick Gale, the foundation’s vice president of community investment.

“What Steve Johnson is doing through Faith Through Frames is such a great example of the good that can come from people helping people. We are honored to partner with Steve as he uses his skills to help our neighbors in need illustrate their life’s stories and memories.”

The grant has allowed Johnson to take on new projects, including one at First Lutheran Church photographing people after they had received a donated haircut and makeover.

“I ended up taking about 38 portraits, either individuals or families together,” he said.

The next idea came courtesy of a Peace Lutheran member who brought her 93-year-old father, a military veteran, for a portrait to hang above his bed and have for the family.

“I thought I have to do more to reach out to people in that age range who can’t get out or may not have the money,” he said.

The following month, a volunteer helping at his photography session mentioned she works at Bethany Lutheran Home. So in April, he took photos of residents there.

“In the next couple months, I expect I’ll have run through the grant,” he said. “And I’ll have to figure out what to do next.”

During his day job, Johnson works in the printing room at Qualified Presort Service.

The idea of starting a side business has taken a bit of a backseat to what’s become an unexpected blessing.

Almost 300 photos later, he has acquired a perspective far beyond what he sees through his lens.

“Everybody tells me you’re doing such a great thing and doesn’t realize they’re touching my life more than I’m touching theirs,” he said. “It wasn’t something I expected when I started this. I wanted to reach out and help, but at the same time the way it’s touching my life is incredible.”

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Jodi’s Journal: Faith Through Frames creates priceless portraits

Steve Johnson thought maybe his camera could help him start a little side business. It led him to a calling instead.

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