Help-Portrait event shows power of a single photo
Five years ago, Jeremy Cowart was looking for a way to help photographers give back to their local communities. What started out as a simple project turned into a global movement that has helped hundreds of thousands of people in dozens of countries.
The idea behind Help-Portrait is simple; photographers find someone in need, take their picture, print it and give it to them.
“I put the idea out there really not knowing how many would participate, and it caught on,” Cowart, a celebrity entertainment photographer, said by phone. “When you give people a really simple idea, it empowers them and inspires them to want to give.”
Help-Portrait’s fifth annual event, held Dec. 7, attracted 963 photographers who distributed 16,624 portraits in 22 countries. Hundreds of hair stylists and makeup artists also helped out by pampering those who got their photos taken. The figures are based on stats that Help-Portrait has collected so far; they’ll likely increase as more organizers share turnout numbers.
The annual event, which began in Nashville, has grown organically. Any photographer — freelancers, photojournalists, hobbyists, etc. — can set up an event and solicit volunteers to help with it. Photographers are discouraged from keeping the photos for their portfolios, but some post the photos online to show the impact Help-Portrait has had. Cowart said the events — which are held at various locations like YMCAs, newsrooms and churches — are about giving, not taking, photos.
There’s been a range of participants throughout the years: Hurricane Sandy and Katrina survivors, victims of domestic violence, low-income families, people in hospitals, the homeless, and people who simply want a professional photo or family portrait taken but don’t have the money to pay for one.
It’s easy to take photos for granted, given how many of us have easy access to cameras on our cell phones. We’re used to seeing photos on Facebook or Twitter, and in albums and frames. But some people who show up at Help-Portait events, Cowart said, have never had their picture taken, never taken a photo with their child, or have posed for only one type of photo — a criminal mugshot.
This video explaining one of Help-Portrait’s past events quotes a man who says: “53 years old, and never had a picture taken except for … jail.”
Cowart said his friends have seen photos of the homeless in Nashville carrying their photos with them. For many, it’s one of the only gifts they’ll get around the holidays, and one of the few tangible items they can call their own.
When people have the chance to get their hair and makeup done and pose for a photo, “they don’t feel like a statistic anymore,” Cowart said. “The impact goes way beyond the picture.”
Photographer Micah Robinson, who has helped out with Nashville’s Help-Portrait event since 2011, coordinates with homeless shelters in the area to get the word out about the event and to provide transportation to it. Many of the volunteers who help out at the event, he said, donate clothes that participants can wear during the photo-shoot and then keep afterward.
Robinson reflected on some of the memorable moments he witnessed during this year’s Nashville event: “The gentlemen from Iraq that was so excited about getting his portrait with Santa that he facetimed his family back in Iraq to share the experience with them; the ladies weeping while getting their hair/makeup done because they’ve never in their life been pampered.”
The walls between the privileged and the under-privileged start to break down during Help-Portrait events, Robinson said; people who may not otherwise interact with the homeless end up making them feel beautiful, worthy, and cared for.
“From the volunteer perspective, that’s why I think it’s so impactful; everybody works around stereotypes and perceptions that they have about people based on their socioeconomic situation or social standing,” Robinson said by phone.
The photos from Help-Portrait events in Nashville and around the world tell stories — of people who are struggling and those who are working to turn their lives around. They’re a reminder that something as small as a photo can have an immeasurable impact.
“I think we all want to be seen and we all want to feel special and loved,” Cowart said. “To have that moment where you feel seen and feel valued, or you see yourself in a new light — it can be a perspective-changing moment.”
Here are some memorable tweets from people who took part in Help-Portrait this year: