The advent of camera phones has in many ways undermined the charm and formality of traditional family photos. But for those of lesser means, a family portrait isn’t just special—it’s sacred.
This was the stark realization that inspired celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart to create Help-Portrait six years ago. Since then, the simple gesture of offering a portrait to someone in need has grown into an international movement.
The first Saturday in December, in hundreds of cities in more than 60 countries, local photographers organize events to provide free individual and family portraits. Help-Portrait Columbus has been involved in the project since the beginning, offering more organized shooting locations than any other city in the world.
Most local photographers were initially drawn to the group through a mix of online interest and personal contacts. It’s a tightly-knit community in a town where everyone already seems to know everyone.
“I first found out about Help- Portrait from following Jeremy Cowart on Facebook,” said Amanda McKinley, who has been involved since 2008. Cowart and several colleagues organized a test event in Nashville that September, then posted a documentary short on YouTube to inspire fellow photographers. “After seeing videos of Jeremy sharing his own experiences, I knew right away this was something in which I wanted to take part.”
Unlike most cities, where only a single event is organized, Help-Portrait Columbus has offered more than a dozen different shooting locations that change slightly from year-to-year based on availability. Recognizing Central Ohio’s mass transit limitations, photographers create partnerships with community centers, clothes closets, food pantries, and homeless shelters that serve those in need.
Extending the original scope of Help-Portrait, Columbus photographers also provide portraits for families with children who have developmental challenges – families who often struggle not only financially, but also to find a photographer patient enough to coax a smile from a reluctant child.
Another unique shooting location is Rebecca’s Place, which offers temporary housing for women in crisis and transition.
“Rebecca’s Place is probably my favorite venue on Help-Portrait day because it is such a challenge,” McKinley said. “Over the years, we have refined how we accomplish our work in this small space.”
“Some are young mothers just trying to get their feet on the ground while looking for employment. Others have endured the depths of substance abuse and are on the mend. The short amount of time we spend with these women gives them all a chance to feel equal. We want them to feel important, we want to leave them feeling confident, and most of all, we want to see them smile.”
Typically, Help-Portrait cities offer a single portrait. Columbus organizers have always provided two, so no one has to choose between keeping or sharing them. Photographers also release their rights to the portraits so recipients can reprint as many copies as they’d like, wherever they’d like. It’s never been about taking pictures – it’s about giving them.
The innovative implementation of Help-Portrait Columbus has made it a model for other cities, attracting photographers from throughout Ohio and neighboring states.
“When I first learned of the event, there was no one in Cleveland or Akron involved,” said John Saraya, a photographer from Northeastern Ohio. “I looked around and found the group in Columbus. I return because I have made some great friends, and the group is extremely well organized. There’s a reason the locations keep asking us to come back.”
“I truly believe when you’re down
on your luck, sometimes all it takes
is the kindness of a stranger to
remind you how special you are.”
The event has also provided opportunities for experienced photographers to mentor those new to portrait photography.
“I’ve been able to teach and offer suggestions to those behind the camera, as well as interact with those in front of it,” Saraya said. “I was helping a less experienced photographer with posing a woman, and joking with both as to how I was doing so. After the woman saw the images, she sought me out to give me a hug and say thank you for making her look so good.”
Though it’s easy to take family photos for granted, for some, they are still a luxury.
“Initially, many of our clients have never had the means to have a professional portrait taken. It turned out, many of them had no pictures of themselves or their families at all,” said Ben Simon, also a founding photographer with Help-Portrait Columbus. “Over the years, we’ve photographed many of the same families. They can now document their individual growth and that of their families through the images we provide.”
“Reactions have always been mixed with raw emotion and gratitude,” Simon said. “I truly believe when you’re down on your luck, sometimes all it takes is the kindness of a stranger to remind you how special you are.” •
Photographers interested in joining Help-Portrait Columbus can learn more at help-portrait.com. Help-Portrait Columbus events will be held on December 6 at Rebecca’s Place, the Childhood League, Urban Concern, and others TBD.