When published photos show evangelist Billy Graham meeting a head of state, addressing a crowd in a communist country or making an impromptu visit to flood victims in India, most likely the photographer was Russ Busby.
Busby, 61, has accompanied Graham on his crusades and foreign visits for more than 30 years to provide publicity photos for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn.
But because Graham, a friend to several U.S. Presidents, has moved in rarefied political circles, Busby also is an invaluable source for newsworthy photos.
"I'm often the only Western photographer on the scene," said Busby, a Northridge resident who works out of a Burbank office.
Busby's pictures from Graham's trip to North Korea early this month appeared in USA Today because no news service photographers were there. For the same reason, his photos have shown up occasionally in Time, Newsweek--and even the National Enquirer.
The sensationalist tabloid--which periodically runs articles on Graham, now 73 and a celebrity in his own right--reported in a center-spread article on Feb. 4, 1986, that Graham had "wowed" people in Romania and Eastern Europe on a recent trip there.
"That trip was truly interesting pictorially," Busby said, pointing to five color photos, including one of a massive street crowd trailing Graham and another of rooftop crowds hoping to see the evangelist.
No credit line appeared under the photos.
"I reached the point years ago where I don't need a credit line to feel good," he said.
Although the media expect the public relations arm of any organization to provide news releases and free photos, which journalists call "handouts," Busby's relationship with a major newsmaker puts extra demands on his services.
Graham, the first evangelist to preach publicly in North Korea since 1945, met April 2 with longtime President Kim Il Sung. The country has no diplomatic relations with the United States, but North Korea did enter the United Nations last year and Graham noted that the government's restrictions on religion have softened in recent years.
On April 6, Graham held a news conference in Hong Kong to talk about his North Korean trip, declaring that his purpose was identical to that of his other pioneering trips--"to preach the Gospel." He said he found the North Korean president, who was about to turn 80, to be "a vigorous and magnetic leader" who welcomed him "with great cordiality."
The press corps based in Hong Kong was looking for more than quotes, however. No foreign news agency except Cable News Network was allowed to cover the Graham trip to Pyongyang.
The Graham party had arrived in Hong Kong at 6 p.m. on April 4, a Saturday night.
Through friends, Busby found photo labs open that night. By 9 p.m. Sunday, Busby had 600 photo prints for the news conference the next day.
Another of Busby's challenges is to create interesting photos from crowd scenes.
Busby noted that Ruth Graham, Billy's wife, once said that if you've seen one crowd picture, you've seen them all.
Yet, part of the Graham phenomenon is the string of record-setting crowds he has attracted over the years--including the estimated 250,000 who gathered last year to hear him at New York City's Central Park.
"We try to document the major things that he does," Busby said in a recent interview. Later, he rephrased his words in self-effacing terms that Graham's close-knit evangelism team prefers: "We try to document what God has been doing through one man this century."
The Missouri-raised Busby went to work for the association's Minneapolis office at the end of 1956 and started taking pictures for the organization's pamphlets, books and magazines in the late 1950s.
He became Graham's chief photographer in the early 1960s.
Busby moved his office and accumulating files to Burbank 15 years ago.
Either despite or because of his three decades of association with the evangelist, Busby is short on revealing anecdotes or stories of Graham gaffes.
"He's stuck his foot in his mouth sometimes, but not very often," Busby said. "Billy is very honest, very sincere and very kind, and his motives are right."
Showing a visitor around his office, where photos of Graham with Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali and Lyndon Johnson can be seen, Busby declared that he is determined to finish editing a photo book covering Graham's life.
"We kept telling him to slow down so that we can catch up, but his wife says that nobody's been able to get him to do that yet," Busby said.