It wasn’t a typical evening in Salta, Argentina.
The streets were crowded with the sights and sounds of a local festival. Laughter, music and the smell of exotic food surrounded Leslie Nilsson, a staff photographer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he met with the Omar family, who gave him a tour of the area and the local shop they own.
“This is a beautiful family, he’s a bishop,” Nilsson said, then pointing to a photograph, “This is his wife and daughter. We walked through [the festival] and it was full of people and it was wonderful.”
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 Sergio had died of a brain aneurysm. What was striking to Nilsson was not that the family had recovered, but Omar’s statement about his son.
“I can’t imagine 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 he 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 & Life: Stories and Photographs of a Global Faith,” that highlight portraits of stories and people, like the Omar family, they’ve met 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, Bell said.
At the beginning, Bell and Nilsson had hundreds of photos to choose from. Some finalists were picked due to their visual appeal, but many were chosen because of the stories attached, Bell said. As the narrowing process continued, the two photographers realized that there was something all the pictures had in common.
“Reading the stories, you realize that you are not alone in your challenges, that people all over the world have challenges, sometimes much worse, sometimes maybe not as bad, but they have hope,” Nilsson said.
For both photographers, ‘Light & 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 about 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 were immediately comfortable with him bringing a camera into their home, but also remembers others when the subject wasn’t comfortable until they're “almost driving away.”
Seeing the Church with 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.”