Help Portrait

a.k.a. the best thing I do with a camera, all year.

A couple of years ago, I became aware of a project called Help-Portrait started by photographer Jeremy Cowart to give back to the community. As we head into Fall of 2014, it's hard to believe that it's been two years since I first reached out to the photographic community in Birmingham to nurture this ember of an idea into a full blown roaring fire.

My now close friends, Rabbi Barry Altmark and Juan Rodriguez, responded to a Facebook post that I wrote back about this time 2012 asking if anyone in Birmingham was doing an event. Turns out, nobody was, and Juan had unsuccessfully tried in 2011 to put a group together. To understand the story a little more fully, we need to take a little bit of a step back and explain what Help-Portrait is.

It's simple:

  1.  Find someone in need.
  2. Make a picture of them.
  3. Print it and give it to them for free.

It's a global effort, and the events are held on the first Saturday of December, which will be December 6 this year. Each event is its own thing, but the marketing and PR side on a large scale are handled by the overall Help-Portrait team up in Nashville with Jeremy.  

So, given that, Birmingham, in fall of 2012, had never had an event. Enter Juan and Barry. The three of us are as different as we are similar, and the similarities happen to be, in no particular order, we're all photographers, we're dudes, empathy is a big thing for us, we like to give back to the community, we're all a little ADD (Ok... I'm a lot ADD), we like to drink good beer, we're each a bit of a cut-up. Fortunately, that makes for a trio of fun loving folks who have been able to rally behind, what I lovingly refer to as, the best thing I do with a camera, all year. Period.

As a photographer, and in particular, a portrait photographer, I'm fascinated by stories, and not just in the sense that they relate to an image. I think images are powerful in the telling of stories, but the story itself, to me, is what drives my eye, mind, and soul.

Each of us has our own story that we tell ourselves, our inner monologue. In the middle ground of the population, this inner monologue helps create well adjusted, decent, hardworking folks, who do well for themselves and their families, and who tell themselves that they did a good job here, improve upon things as necessary, are reasonably self critical, and overall fairly centered people.

On one end of the spectrum, you've got megalomaniacs, folks whose inner monologue, the story that they tell themselves every morning when they get out of bed, is that they're the best thing since sliced bread. They are out to fight the good fight, won't take no for an answer, and come rain, sleet, snow, or hail, will figure out a way to get what they want. We call these people various things depending on the methods and results. Psychopath on the one hand, President, CEO, or professional athlete on the other. (Ref: CNN, Journal of Research in Personality

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are folks for whom the inner monologue goes something like this, "You didn't get it right. You never make that shot. You're always fumbling over your words. You don't do enough for your family." These things manifest themselves often as depression or other mental disorders, and are things that don't crop up in the news very often until someone like Robin Williams succumbs to a disease that he had been fighting tenaciously for decades.

The reason that Help-Portrait is so meaningful to me, is because of the role that imagery plays in our consciousness. The brain doesn't hold on to everything like some massive datacenter, archiving email back since you were in college. (Thank God. I'm really happy to not remember the first few weeks of my life being born at 32 weeks. I'd probably have PTSD.) It makes connections, stores memories, ties them to sounds, scents, smells, and yes, images, that are all brought into the cerebral cortex through neurons that are all tied to the senses.

Ever looked back through a scrapbook and found a picture of a vacation you haven't thought about in years? Ever had someone do a #TBT on Instagram and thought, "Man, I'd totally forgotten about that, what a great time!" Then your brain starts going down the file system and remembers what the place smelled like, the music, the weather, etc, etc.

Now, consider all of this from the perspective of someone whose images of their life aren't pleasant. A mother who has left the father of one of her three children, because of domestic violence. A woman who has been kicked out of a shelter without being able to collect all of her belongings. A young man from a violent part of the inner city who has just enlisted in the US Navy to try and make a better life for himself. A tornado victim who lost every single image they'd ever owned of themselves or their family. Someone suffering from a depression so great they're unable to hold a steady job, and who has ended up homeless.

These folks don't have those pictures to look back through as a story of mostly happy memories. Their inner monologue, if positive, is the result of tremendous faith, strength, and survival. Many times the stories they tell themselves aren't happy, but they're reality.

Help-Portrait is a day that is all about them. We get hair stylists, makeup artists, caterers, teachers, photographers, attorneys, programmers, you name it, the volunteers come from ALL walks of life, and we all come together to create a day on which these people are the stars. It's a professionally produced photo shoot, complete with craft services and handlers. We've got retouchers, professional printers, photographers, lights, gaffers, assistants, cameras, backdrops, the works. It rivals any high budget photo shoot I've ever seen. We create something much larger than the images we deliver on high gloss inkjet paper. We create a memory. An event for which a tangible image is merely the touchstone in reality for, what we hope to be, an amazing day for all of our clients.

Last year we partnered with the YWCA, and it was a tremendous success serving over 60 clients. We're looking forward to a bigger, better, continued partnership with them again this year.

I'll leave you with a quote from the letter Rabbi Barry received from the CEO of the YWCA, dated 12/26/13.

I am reminded of Maya Angelou's observation that: "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel." You made these families feel special. You made them feel loved. You made them feel worthwhile. You gave them good memories that will last for years to come. On behalf of each of them, we thank you so very much, and we wish for you and everyone who helped that day many blessings in the coming year. 
Suzanne Durham

I have a copy of the whole letter in my desk drawer, and it is a needed reminder to be thankful for the little things, and to always remember and care for those for whom the little things are a big deal, or absent altogether. I find that a camera is one way to do that, and it drives me to work towards a successful event again this year.

Anyone in the Birmingham area who wants to learn more or be a team member with us this year, feel free to leave a comment here, or check out our Facebook page at: