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What is a Picture Worth? by Cara Davis

My mother has no fewer than 40 photographs of my daughter—her only grandchild—on display in her home. When you walk into her three-bedroom, ranch-style home, there is little question who her heart orbits around. A mixture of candid snapshots and professional studio portraits pepper the walls, shelves and refrigerator, often rotating according to the seasons.

It’s often said a picture is worth a thousand words, but to her, one word is worth a thousand pictures: Madilyn.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for many people who never have pictures taken–formally or informally. But for most, it’s a luxury ill afforded when you’re struggling to put food on the table or maintain a roof over your head.

Thankfully, there’s a growing movement of photographers worldwide seeking to change that. Help-Portrait is a global event each December when photographers, stylists and other volunteers come together to give—instead of take—photos. Celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart founded the group as a way to encourage the photography community to give back.

The premise is simple:

1. Find someone in need.
2. Take their portrait.
3. Print their portrait.
4. Deliver it to them.

This group sets up backdrops, lights and makeup stations in homeless shelters, hospitals and poverty-stricken areas to give portraits to those who would otherwise never have them. They also provide a hot meal, clothes, shoes and a safe place for kids to play for the day. In only two events over the past two years, the group has logged 101,596 photos in 54 countries.

At these events, the portrait becomes more than a representation of a person’s likeness and more than a keepsake. It becomes the receipt for an exchange between individuals where the currency is dignity, courage, love and hope.

“Poverty steals a lot of things, like your home and car and food, but it also steals something on the inside,” Annie Downs, Help-Portrait’s Events Coordinator said. “Help-Portrait feeds that something on the inside.”

For many subjects, this photograph may symbolize the start of a new life, a celebration of sobriety, the first time they’ve ever felt beautiful or the only family photo that now exists. Phillip Jackovich, a Help-Portrait subject, reflected: “This portrait represents where I’m going, not where I’ve been.”

For many photographers, this experience may be the most fulfilling of their career to date. They may walk away with altered perspectives and new friends. Cowart says the event crosses cultural borders on one side of the camera and competitive borders on the other.

When people come together to work toward the common good, something magical and tangible is produced. It may look like picture, but it’s often worth more than a thousand words.

So what is a picture worth?

Ask Heather’s parents. Photographer Jean Labelle made beautiful portraits of the 11-year-old suffering with a terminal illness in Ottawa, Ontario just weeks before she passed away in 2009.

Ask photographer Kelli Trontel. Kelli was part of the initial Help-Portrait test event in Nashville, TN and organized her own event in Montana after moving there in 2010. “I was overwhelmed by the response from the photographers whom I had never met, the amount of volunteers who showed up and the heart of the people here in the town that I had only lived in for about three months. We planned the Help-Portrait event in just 30 days and the day itself was incredible.”

The new community Kelli found herself surrounded by became an unexpected blessing when her sister died. “The emails and phone calls from the photographers who had heard of the news meant so much to me. Help-Portrait is about so much more than you think and it will forever change your life.”

Linda, from Northwest Arkansas, took photos of a pregnant teen, making her feel “movie-star” beautiful. “I have prayed that one day I would find something to be passionate about, something that made me feel joy, something that would make me work hard for it. I have found that in photography,” Linda said.

Similarly, Kwame Reed, a photographer in Brentwood, Calif., said after participating, “Today was the one of the best days I have had as a photographer and as a human being.”

Jeremy Cowart has been so moved by the stories emerging from these events that he’s encouraging subjects to tell their stories in their own words on their photographs on this year’s event being held Dec. 10. In a test event on Skid Row on a recent Sunday, Cowart allowed his subjects to write anything they wanted on their photographs.

The results speak for themselves.

If you are interested in serving with Help-Portrait, please click here.