Fashion photographer with S.C. roots brings new awareness of God through Christian photo collection
By Jessica Connor
His images are sometimes shocking, sometimes alluring, sometimes so compelling you can barely take your eyes off them—Jesus with a Nazi. With a jeans-clad, lipstick-wearing Mary Magdalene. With a cigarette-smoking motorcycle gang. With a wealthy man and his sports car. With a business-suited woman doing her best to ignore the poor.
But no matter the reaction to them, the 45 images that comprise fashion photographer Michael Belk’s Journeys with the Messiah reflect a parable-like message, attempting to tell Gospel stories in a fresh, simple and powerful way that brings true relevance to Scripture.
Journeys with the Messiah is a photographic collection developed by Belk, who took a hiatus from a 30-year career as a successful fashion photographer with work appearing in Vogue, Elle, GQ and Vanity Fair. Published in 2009, the project includes limited edition, signed and numbered fine art originals, as well as a coffee table book, behind-the-scenes DVD, posters, note cards and more. Today, Belk travels the country speaking to churches and groups large in small. Recently, he spent a weekend at Mauldin United Methodist Church, Mauldin, presenting his images and testimony in morning and evening worship services, and then spending time with Greenville District clergy the next day.
“It’s impossible to describe Journeys with the Messiah to people who haven’t seen it, so I was grateful that our MUMC folks were willing to give it a try,” said the Rev. Smoke Kanipe, Mauldin pastor. “Virtually everyone who experienced the presentation found it artistically moving and theologically profound. The buzz about the presentation has lasted for several weeks. Many folks commented that Michael’s personal ‘journey with the Messiah’ is a crucial part of the experience.”
Kanipe said Greenville District pastors who experienced Journeys the next day brought different insights and questions from Sunday’s lay audience. In particular, they enjoyed engaging Belk in conversation about how to communicate the “old, old story” to a contemporary culture. Several of them said they plan to use some of the images in sermons or Bible studies.
A long road
Belk grew up in central Florida but has roots in South Carolina; his father was born in St. Charles and grew up in Darlington, and Belk would spend every Christmas there as a child, gathering with relatives from all over South Carolina. But despite growing up an active member of a UMC, he lived what he called “a Christ-less life” up until his forties.
That’s when Belk, overworked, burned out and in a dark moment, had a spiritual encounter that would forever change his life.
“I was a successful fashion photographer and produced photos for J.Crew and Nautica and many others, got to travel the world and shoot in Paris for Dior and in the outback of Australia on assignment and just all over, but in my early forties no matter how successful I was, there was always something missing,” Belk said.
Eventually, the pace of that life took a toll, and in that darkness, he had an encounter.
“God just said, ‘Do you want to keep on going this way, or do you want to give my way a try?’” Belk said. “It was a very laid-back experience, and I said, ‘I don’t know what my way is and I’d like to give yours a try.’ That started a journey that I had no way of knowing would end here.”
Belk became a Christian, and one day he was struck with the idea that God wanted him to use his talent to create pictures that looked like Jesus to tell stories.
An ‘amazingly clever’ God
“But when you do something like this, it’s never for the reason that you think it is,” Belk said. “I’d come to the conclusion that God gives us a lot of gifts and one day comes and asks us to use them to glorify His kingdom, but He is the master artist—the last thing He needs is my photographs. He needs me; He needs my heart. I believe this was His plan to get it … by luring me in to do this project.”
And that’s exactly what happened. This “amazingly clever” God called Belk to do the photo project, knowing all the while that Belk would get sucked in and utterly transformed, ultimately becoming a fully invested follower of Jesus.
“I call it my Jonah story … and I really think that’s how God works: calls us out on projects so when we return we have a whale of a story to tell,” Belk said.
His “whale” is how embarking on this large-scale photo project—intended to be powerful way to tell Gospel stories visually and show Christ’s relevance today—became Belk’s own saving grace.
Helping people relate
With an Italian actor portraying Jesus and a sizeable cast and crew, the photo series is set in ancient Matera, Italy, which was also the site of Mel Gibson’s film “Passion of the Christ.” The city, which Belk calls a “phenomenal place,” dates back thousands of years to possibly the first inhabitants of Italy.
Belk said the collection tries to be a visual communication of the relevance of Jesus.
“We’re taking a 2,000-year-old story and what looks like a 2,000-year-old setting and adding elements of today so people can see his relevance. People can say, ‘Wow, a sports car? Jesus with a Nazi?’ The images were created to draw you into the story,” Belk said.
After all, he noted, Jesus’ parables are really the story of people’s life, and most people can relate to everybody in those images.
“My thought was if people could see him as I was seeing him, perhaps they wouldn’t fear him but would embrace him,” Belk said.
Sadly, Belk said, many people’s opinion of Jesus is similar to what happens in an election year: they get their opinions from the news stations, and they haven’t taken the time to find out the truth. But if more people did that—read the Bible, studied the Word, took the time to listen to what He said—it could be a lot different, Belk said.
“He didn’t come to start a religion,” Belk said. “He came to testify to the truth of His father and showed us how to look at part of the kingdom now.”
He hopes his photographs can be the starting place for dialogue and curiosity, both for non-believers and for those who call themselves Christian but limit Christ to Sunday mornings and emergencies.
“My goal is people will use these to inspire themselves and at the same time share their faith with others. Just put up a picture of Jesus walking down a country road with a Nazi, and you won’t be the one who starts the conversation. It’s drawing people in to tell the story,” Belk said.
Belk is planning to return to South Carolina in February for the United Methodist Men’s spiritual retreat, set for Feb. 20-22, 2015, in Myrtle Beach. Visit ummsc.org for details. For more information on Journeys with the Messiah, visit Belk’s website, www.journeyswiththemessiah.org, where all of the images are available for viewing, as well as his DVD, fine art, book and more