A Man on a Mission

Photographer Robert Johnson travels the world snapping shots of God at work through missionaries. Along the way, God is teaching this journalist as much about his own life as those of others.

Here I am with my camera bag slung over my shoulder about to climb aboard a truck headed deep into the desert in Chad. As a photographer for Horizons Magazine, I was headed out to capture images of missionaries delivering supplies for a new school building. There was no room in the cab, so I rode in back, jostled on top of the supplies. Now I know how practical turbans are in the sun-scorched desert.
Here I am with my camera bag slung over my shoulder about to climb aboard a truck headed deep into the desert in Chad. As a photographer for Horizons Magazine, I was headed out to capture images of missionaries delivering supplies for a new school building. There was no room in the cab, so I rode in back, jostled on top of the supplies. Now I know how practical turbans are in the sun-scorched desert.

I came to a narrow footbridge over a rushing river in Afghanistan.

It was made of sticks held together by mud. And, although the moss growing on top proved it had served its purpose for some time, the primitive design didn’t inspire much confidence.

I looked up to the sky, half expecting God to audibly answer the question going through my mind: “This is a teaching moment, right?” Despite all that was going on and all my fears and doubts, God knew I was grappling with an internal question, “What if something happens to me?”

How did I get in this spot? I’m a photographer. I travel the world capturing images that reveal what God is doing among the nations.

The work is exhilarating, challenging, exciting, adventurous and sometimes very difficult. Out in the field, I need to be Indiana Jones with a Nikon. Back home in Aurora, Indiana, I’m Cheyenne’s husband and father to Shiloh-Grace, nine; Huck, five; and Weslee, eight months.

Spin a globe, stop it randomly with a finger and check the spot. I've probably been there. Work has taken me to a medical clinic in Nepal, dark streets in Australia and to the home of a Muslim family in Tunisia. Wherever God leads, I go with my camera as the staff photographer for Horizons Magazine, published by a missions agency, TEAM, A Global Alliance of Churches and Missionaries. The first audiences for my photos are missionaries and the believers who support them.

My predicament at the bridge started shortly after landing in the heart of Indonesia. I was in a room, sinking into a deep sleep when back home—across the ocean—everything changed. I read an e-mail from my wife the next morning that told me that her dad had died, killed tragically in an accident.

Less than 24 hours after arriving, I was gone again, headed home. I barely remember the 26 hours of flying back to the United States. My family and I attended the funeral in California. We flew to Louisiana for the burial. Then, while experiencing the aftershock of what felt like a massive family storm, I made my way to Houston in order to catch a flight back to Afghanistan. My colleague, a videographer, was waiting for me.

Mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, I began walking through the Afghan mountains with a few local workers. They were taking me to micro-hydro water projects. I tried hard to focus. I have to admit, I was more than a little foggy and distracted. But somehow I needed to muster the strength to hear the stories and photograph these men at work.

Then we stopped at the footbridge.

Something really deep happened in my soul at that moment. It was the realization that, in the middle of all that was going on, the Lord truly was holding me. I knew I could walk across the bridge safely, both in reality and metaphorically. This was a critical lesson: No matter what I am going through—even with a flood rushing underneath me—I know I can trust in the Lord.

On the surface, I was chasing stories about how people living in poverty receive eye care and electricity. But in my heart I was more concerned about my own fears and the broken hearts back home. Then, standing at that bridge, my deeply held worry evaporated. I knew that the Lord was with me. I was safe.

My wife even told me later, “I knew I could let you go back. The Lord said He will only give us what we can bear—He knew I couldn’t take anything else.”

"The sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; He will remove His people's disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken."
Isaiah 25:8 NIV

No matter where I am, I always pray for the Lord to give me fresh eyes and an open heart. Sometimes the life-transforming stories of my travels do get compartmentalized and tucked away somewhere deep inside. I have to focus on the moment, knowing there is a job that needs to be done. However, I can’t seem to walk away from my key experiences:

  • Watching a kind community health worker unwrap the bandages from his patients with leprosy.
  • Visiting a woman’s clinic just steps away from the largest dump in Guatemala.
  • Riding into the dark of night on top of a truck in Afghanistan with men I hardly knew.

These and many similar moments have made a deep imprint on my heart. There are times I grab my gear, take off after a story and feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I know God is directing my camera. He has a story He wants told.

Then I experience a moment of panic: My wife doesn’t really know where I am and what I doing. I have a family at home and I want this adventure to turn out well. With the Lord's help, it does.

Some people ask me if photojournalism really is a ministry. It took me a while to figure that one out for myself—and now I know it is a ministry. Stories and photos open people’s eyes to the Gospel going forth around the world. It is a challenging role and I’m humbled God has called me to be part of His work.

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Master Teacher

God often uses simple things to teach me life lessons. This image of a primitive footbridge in Afghanistan takes me back to that time and place, and what he was showing me. The Lord used this bridge to reassure me about His presence in my life.

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​Limited supplies

Compared to modern standards, health care workers in Chaurjahari Hospital in Rukum District, Nepal, are short on supplies, medical instruments and technology. Even with less than ideal circumstances, medical missionaries give everything they have to see the lives of the local people improve.

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God's Word

Tara Datt Pant, a local community health worker, lives a life rooted in God’s Word. His life illuminated by the Gospel, Tara Datt’s acts of love and service breathe life into his patients.

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In His Name

When staff at a small clinic in Dadeldhura, Nepal, heard that people were injured in an accident two hours away, they were ready to care for them, regardless of the primitive conditions.

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An Ancient Disease

Although leprosy is curable, Nepali society treats people with the disease as outcasts. Through proper medical care and the love of Jesus, Tara Datt doesn’t let his patients walk away hopeless.

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Changed Lives

Tara Datt, right, was born into an upper caste family and was in line to become a Hindu high priest when he found the Lord. Now he volunteers his time helping leprosy patients. Once ostracized and shamed because of disease, Siddah, left, has been given treatment and hope.

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The Lame Shall Walk

A medical team prayed for a 13-year-old boy, gave him anesthesia and then repaired his club foot. The patient in Chaurjahari, Nepal, now walks normally thanks to medical missionaries.

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Tears of Hope

Malnutrition and disease in rural Nepal are concerns for parents. God uses caring medical workers to bring life-changing healthcare that will help children thrive.

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The Least of These

Located near the largest garbage dump in Central America, the Potter’s House in Guatemala ministers to women who dig through the trash for a living. While society considers them scavengers, the people serving at Potter’s House call them treasures. The church’s main message is, “You are valuable.”

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Time to Learn

Education in Nepal had been primarily fear-based with children often enduring beatings in the classroom. Missionary teams change this by showing teachers how to create healthy learning environments for kids.

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A Victory Greeting

The traditional greeting in Nepal is placing your hands in this position and saying, “Namaste,” roughly translated from Hindi as “I bow to the god in you.” Christians in Nepal use the same gesture and say, “Jai Masi,” which means “Victory to the Messiah!”

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Worthy of Honor

On a visit to central Italy, I got this shot of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. Considered one of the nation’s most important landmarks, it is named in honor of St. Francis, the famous Catholic friar who grew up in Assisi.

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Taking a Play Break

Ministry student Yaimo Perew takes time away from studies to lead a play group to a pond in Papua, Indonesia. Yaimo and his family live on a Bible school campus, a far cry from the jungle village they call home. Upon completing ministry school, he is committed to sharing the Gospel with his tribe.

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Desperate Lives

More than 11,000 people live off the trash found in the Guatemala City dump, rummaging through the rubbish every day just to stay alive.

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Greeting Party

Serving as a welcoming committee, a school boy in rural Nepal greets visitors with his smile.

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Among the Poor

The blue facades of muddy Main Street in Chaurjahari, Nepal, add a splash of color to stone buildings of this oppressed nation.

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