Photo courtesy Ron Nickel

Photography with purpose

Global photographer mentors the next generation

“I always wait until the last day of shooting to hit the locals’ favourite restaurant,” my friend Ron Nickel tells me. “They don’t pay me to get sick, so it’s better to be safe.” Even though he calls central Alberta home, the man has been out of the country for 72 out of 91 days taking pictures for Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision and Focus on the Family among others. Sharing a steak and cheese sandwich (extra spicy—hold the pickles) at the local Subway is much less exotic but I’m captivated by Ron’s stories from around the world.

“In the last twelve months I’ve had photo assignments in Iceland, Thailand (twice), Nepal, Salt Lake City, China, the Philippines (for a month), Sri Lanka, Japan, Georgia, Poland and Toronto,” he reflects, “but my favorite memory from the past year was hiking to Base Camp Mount Everest with my 24-year-old son Jesse.”

He’s a true global citizen, comfortable wherever­. We joke that he’s the Canadian who grew up in India as a missionary kid, even though I’m the one with the Indian ancestry who grew up in Canada. Both his accent and stereotypical is-it-yes? is-it-no? head-bob are better than mine.

“I knew early on that school and wedding photos, while providing a living, were not why I became a photographer,” says Ron. Back in the 1980’s he joined the art department of Prairie Bible Institute to work on the college’s publications. “I was lucky enough to have my work here at Prairie catch the attention of publishers in the United States. The rest,” he says, “is history.”

Flipping through Ron’s photos, it’s easy to see why he continues to get callbacks—even though these days it seems like anyone with a Costco membership and a few hundred dollars can take ‘professional’ pictures. What I don’t understand is how he can keep doing it. Depicted are crisis situations, cholera clinics, poverty and tragedy. I guess at the smells and sounds, but the sights and the immensity of the need leave nothing to the imagination. They attack my senses and fuel my anger as I process injustice.

Ron Nickel in Haiti.
Ron Nickel in Haiti.

“I was in Sri Lanka covering an event,” recalls Ron, “when a pastor who had flown in from Australia pulled me aside and asked, ‘Do you realize how important your job is?’ At first I thought he was joking but then he said, ‘If you weren’t documenting this event, no one would see what God was doing here.’”

Ron doesn’t believe that his pictures are important in and of themselves. “It’s being a witness of these events that matters,” he explains. “As the pastor encouraged me that day, the words of came to my mind: He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe (John 1:7). Capturing light in these tiny black boxes is technically what photography is, but sharing the Light with thousands of readers—that’s what keeps me going.”

These days, when he’s not on assignment, Ron can be found in the classroom, passing on his skills to the next generation. As program coordinator of the Digital Media program at Prairie, he not only has a passion to prepare students to become professionals in photography, filmmaking and graphic design; he also wants to instill in them a desire to use their gifts to make a difference for good and for God. Tips on where to find the best noodle hut in Chiang Mai can’t hurt either.

Learn more about Ron and the Digital Media program at www.prairie.edu/dm and www.ronnickel.com.

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