Priest photographer’s work aims to give voice to the voiceless
By Julie Filby
Photo by James Baca/DCR
For 50 years Jesuit Father Don Doll has seen the world through the lens of who he is and the life he’s lived.
Father Doll, a renowned photographer whose work was featured in National Geographic magazine in 1984 and 1990, has traveled the globe “to tell the stories of people who have no voice.” His ministry began on the plains of South Dakota in the early 1960s while working with the Lakota people on the Rosebud Reservation. He had joined the Jesuit order after graduating from high school in 1955.
“The first week I was there they said, ‘Would you like to learn photography?’
“I said, ‘Sounds like fun.’”
After two years of training and experience in photography, he questioned that choice.
“I went for a walk on the prairie (wondering) ‘What the heck am I going to do as a Jesuit?” the 75-year-old priest reminisced. “I’m not brilliant like some of these guys.”
Feeling he hadn’t taken “a single decent picture after two-and-a-half years,” he suddenly heard a voice inside him say: “‘Stay with the photography, it’s the first thing you love doing, don’t worry if it takes 10 years.’
“It did!” he added with a laugh.
Since following those promptings of the Holy Spirit, Father Doll’s work—including Native Americans, Yupik Eskimos along the Bering Sea, and the Athapaskans on the Yukon—has become well-known and received many awards including the prestigious Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and Artist of the Year at the Governor’s Awards sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council.
His project “Finding Ernesto” was aired in 1999 on ABC’s “Nightline with Ted Koppel” and he has released two books on Native Americans: “Crying for a Vision” and “Vision Quest: Men, Women and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation.” In the early 1990s he was featured in a national ad for Apple’s PowerBook, with musician Todd Rundgren, determined to be one of Apple’s top ad campaigns to date.
“I see how the Holy Spirit speaks to us in the depths of our hearts and I trust that,” he said. “I don’t hear voices a lot (but) when I have a hunch, I really trust that’s how the Holy Spirit speaks to me. It’s true of every project I’ve taken on.”
Since 1969, Father Doll has worked at Creighton University in Omaha, where he is a professor of journalism. For the last 20 years, he has documented the work of Jesuit Refugee Services in some 50 countries including India, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Sudan and Rwanda. These assignments, he said, working with “the poorest of the poor” have been close to his heart.
In March he was in Denver participating in an international think tank for Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, an initiative of the Society of Jesus with JRS. Through the program, refugees earn a higher education certificate from Regis University through an international network of Jesuit universities.
“Jesuits have a mission: faith doing justice,” he shared, quoting his personal artist statement. “I photograph to tell the stories of people who have no voice. Hopefully, I can help others understand and work to change unjust social structures.”
He often finds himself praying that he can look at people and photograph them “with something of the empathy and understanding that God has for them.”
“Often I’m asked if being a priest affects my photography,” he shared, reflecting on nearly 44 years in the priesthood. “My answer is always: ‘Yes, it has everything to do with it.’
“For me, it’s hard to separate the creative process of ‘seeing’ from prayer. Both can be contemplative acts.”
To commemorate a half-century in photography, Father Doll is working on a book and considering an art exhibit to be on display at the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. For more about Father Doll and to view his work, visit magis.creighton.edu.