Why I Shoot: A Testimony

Five years ago today marks one of the most monumental days in my life… November 1, 2005.

I was 20, a sophomore at Baylor University, living what I thought to be the college dream. I was spending most of my time with a rowdier crowd, and loving it… constantly drinking, often getting belligerently drunk and acting with no regard for the Law.

October 29th, 2005, the Saturday before Halloween, marked one of the biggest frat parties of the year. That night I got drunk enough to pass out and have zero memory of who took me home. The next morning I woke up around noon, feeling pretty hung over. I finally got out of bed, only to discover that someone had drawn in Sharpie on my face after I passed out.

I didn’t really mind, writing it off as just another crazy “fun” night in college. I washed my face, laughing to myself, and sat down at my computer for my normal wake up web surfing routine. Shortly afterward, my roommate came in and hit me with some shocking news.

Kyle Lake, head pastor of UBC (the church I attended), was dead. While preparing to baptize someone in front of the church congregation, he dropped his microphone in the water, short-circuiting a faulty electrical system… he was gone a few minutes later. He was 33 years old and had a wife and three kids.

Kyle’s funeral was the following Tuesday, November 1st. I can still remember it well. Kyle’s friends and family shared stories of joy and passion, his intense love for all and his drive to share the love of Christ. His very being exuded love, and this came out over and over and over.

Through it all, there’s a specific moment that sticks out like no other. As I listened to stories about this passionate man of God, the Lord struck me and opened my eyes. In an instant, I found myself thinking, “wow… if I died today, people would say ‘Austin was a nice guy and could fix computers.’” There was no substance to the life I was living, no eternal impact… only self-indulgence and foolishness. I can remember this epiphany as vividly as if it were yesterday… I can remember where I was sitting,  who I was sitting next to, where I was looking and most importantly, the overwhelming feeling of conviction for the life I was living.

That night, I decided it was time to make a change. The first step was to give up alcohol (I was underage at the time and had a conviction somewhere deep inside against it, but I had been conveniently suppressing it.)  My goal was not to drink again till the end of semester… nothing huge, but a step in the right direction.

As it turns out, I hit my goal of not drinking till the semester’s end, though I still hung out with the same crowd and frequently went to parties. I decided to go ahead and hold out at least till my 21st birthday nine months later in September.  At this point, I had never seriously picked up a camera, much less traveled outside of the country. I had no idea what was coming. Over Christmas, I sold some old medium format film equipment on eBay for Wichita-based photographer Paul Bowen, and he gave me his old Canon D60 and a 70-200 f/2.8 as payment. This was Canon’s second dSLR after the D30, with a sweet 6MP sensor.

When I returned to school in January ‘06, I decided to drop the party scene altogether…it offered me absolutely nothing. All of a sudden I found myself home alone frequently while nearly all my friends were out getting hammered…

I was bored and decided to play around with my new camera. And that’s how it all began. Next thing I knew, I was shooting on Baylor’s campus all night long, sometimes even till sunrise to get epic images of golden skies and liquid light pouring over campus. I would spend hours in my room with my dad’s old Vivitar flash, dropping water into cereal bowl, hoping to create a beautiful image of the water drop splashing on the surface.

This time in my life was a peak of creativity, full of experimentation, failing, trying again, failing again, changing settings, working the light, studying the work of fotogs around the world on sites like deviantART, finding ways into restricted rooms/rooftops on campus just to get the angle I wanted… and really just doing anything it took to create the image I had in mind, despite the limited tools I had.

As I shot, I listened to Rich Mullins incessantly on my iPod. I was inspired by his creativity and the vast number of tracks he’d laid down in beautiful harmony.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my photography was drawing me closer to my Creator.  It had turned into a form of worship for me, a way to glorify God by capturing the Splendor I saw in everything around me. Photography had given me an avenue to take the talents God gave me and run as hard as I could with them.

On my computer, I’d edit and manipulate pictures for hours on end, striving to achieve my artistic vision.  I called my Dad,  a passionate photographer by hobby, hundreds of times saying, “hey, check your email for a new image.” He’d always view it immediately, we’d talk about how I created it, and I’d always learn something new.

Looking back, I can clearly see how God used stories about the life of Kyle Lake to bring me to my knees, to gut check my life, and to ignite a burning fire inside me to bring glory to God instead of run away from Him. Five years ago from this morning, I thought the life I was living was just fine, in fact I thought it was great… but as Isaiah writes, just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than ours. His plan for my life far exceeded my wildest imagination.

I write this with tears of thankfulness streaming down my face, for Kyle’s life, for the enormous impact it had on me, and for the grace of God. Today, five years after Kyle’s funeral, I can’t help but urge you to live a life that exudes love and passion, a life that is making an impact on eternity. Kyle knew not his time, and most certainly knew not the dramatic effect his untimely passing would have on me among so many others, but he lived his life like there was no tomorrow and because of that, I write about him today.

Finally, I leave you with the conclusion of the sermon Kyle wrote and planned to give on Sunday, October 30. It was a divinely appointed message that he never delivered, and one I’ll never forget:

Live. And Live Well.

Breathe. Breathe in and Breathe deeply.

Be present. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.

On a crystal clear, breezy 70 degree day, roll down the windows and feel the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.

If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool Autumn day to freeze your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE.

Get knee-deep in a novel and lose track of time.

If you bike, pedal hard and if you crash then crash well.

Feel the satisfaction of a job well done, a paper well-written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well-performed.

If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all because soon he’ll be wiping his own.

If you’ve recently experienced loss, then grieve. And grieve well.

At the table with friends and family, laugh.

If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke.

And if you eat, then smell.

The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven.

And taste.

Taste every ounce of flavor.

Taste every ounce of friendship.

Taste every ounce of Life.

Because it is most definitely a Gift.
— Kyle Lake