Seeing the Church through a Global Lens: Church Photographers Exhibit Images Inspired by Member Stories

Contributed By Savannah Hopkinson, Church News staff writer

  • 18 May 2018

Church photographers Leslie Nilsson, left, and Cody Bell with some of their photos featured at the “Light and Life” exhibit at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • The exhibit reveals the true diversity found in members throughout the world.

“The Church is a worldwide Church. It’s a worldwide organization. The gospel is for all mankind, and you just don’t have to visit very many people for you to realize that it is perfectly tailored to every person on earth.” —Leslie Nilsson, Church phographer

Leslie Nilsson has worked as a staff photographer for the Church for almost 15 years, but one experience—an evening spent with the Omar family in Salta, Argentina—has continued to stick with him.

“This is a beautiful family. He’s a bishop and his wife and daughter. The day that I was there it was evening. … They have a small shop just right on the outskirts of downtown. We went out and there was a big kind of festival happening that day. … It was full of people and it was wonderful.”

As the evening went on, Nilsson learned that the family had recently experienced a tremendous shock. Bishop Omar’s only son, Sergio, had been called to serve a mission in Peru. Sergio’s spiritual growth had become evident to Bishop Omar, and their letters to each other grew longer each week. In 2015, Omar got a call from the mission president informing him that his son had died of a brain aneurysm.

What struck Nilsson was not that the family had recovered, but Omar’s statement about his son.

“I can’t image how hard that would be, but that’s not what he said,” Nilsson said. “He said that he was glad the Lord took him at a time when [Omar] was strong in the gospel—to recognize that what he’s been burdened with is so much that at another time, he may not have been able to shoulder it. He was grateful that it came at a time when he could remain strong.”

Nilsson and fellow Church photographer Cody Bell picked 34 photos to display in the Church History Museum’s exhibit Light and Life, which highlights portraits of stories and people they’ve encountered while traveling through more than 24 countries on assignments for the Church. The photos were never intended to be compiled in a show, and many were taken spontaneously and never intended to be published, Bell said.

Church photographer Leslie Nilsson (right), whose photos, along with Cody Bell’s, are featured in the Light and Life exhibit, is interviewed by Scot and Maurine Proctor at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

During the beginning stages of planning the exhibit, they were faced with hundreds of photos to pick from. Some finalists were picked due to their visual appeal, but many were chosen because of the stories attached, Bell said.

For both photographers, Light and Life represents a version of the Church that not every member has a chance to experience. Nilsson believes that getting a taste of the true diversity found in members throughout the world helps break down misconceptions and what the Church really looks like.

“A lot of people have this misguided impression that it is an American church because Joseph Smith was American and the Church was founded here, but no, that’s really not true,” Nilsson said. “The Church is a worldwide Church. It’s a worldwide organization. The gospel is for all mankind, and you just don’t have to visit very many people for you to realize that it is perfectly tailored to every person on earth.”

Taking photos in a foreign country can pose some difficult barriers. Taking photos where members feel comfortable in their environment can be even harder. Bell has had experiences where members are immediately comfortable with him bringing a camera into their home, but he also remembers others when the subject isn’t comfortable until they’re “almost driving away.”

Seeing the Church through a global lens brings a greater understanding of how the gospel transcends cultural and language barriers but also brings members together, Nilsson said.

That’s ultimately what the two have learned from their experiences up to this point, and what they hope others can take away from this collection: there is room for everyone in the Lord’s Church.

“I hope they see themselves in these photos,” Nilsson said. “I hope they see themselves in the photos because they are a mother or they’re a daughter or they’re a father or they’re a son, and we know how people love each other and what that looks like. I hope that they will recognize that and maybe be able to extend that for all mankind.”