Missionaries often find themselves in disparate places all over the world, and even though their primary role is not to be photographers, many have a camera in hand to capture the landscape, people, rituals, homes, costumes, daily activities, ministry activities, staff group shots, and more. Sometimes the images are intended for use in prayer letters or marketing efforts by their agency or sending church. Other times missionaries, like amateur anthropologists, are perhaps among the first to photograph a people group, such as Elisabeth Elliot’s shots of the Waodani people in Ecuador.
As we archivists say to budding researchers, understanding why a document is created (including photographs) is one key to interpreting the document. Knowing the original contexts and the intended use of these photographs helps us understand them more deeply.
World War II not only commanded the world’s attention and shaped international politics but also proved to be a decisive moment for missions’ history. Young American men and women military personnel traveled the world, saw the war’s devastation, and came face-to-face with the spiritual needs of the local populations. Their war experiences shaped the college educations they returned to the U.S. to complete and the futures they later stepped into.
But the context they returned to was also evolving. American Evangelicals were emerging from their isolation following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s to take a more active role in church, political, entertainment, education, and business spheres. The National Association of Evangelicals was formed, the roots of Billy Graham’s ministry were already taking hold, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ were established on college and university campuses, and Youth for Christ was on the move among American high school students. Out of this convergence of factors grew new mission agencies, including the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (FEGC), now known as SEND International.