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Photographers to 'give,' not 'take' portraits

By Elizabeth Johnson, CNN
updated 1:58 PM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
Help-Portrait captured the first image of a mother and her daughter in October at the Los Angeles Skid Row Rescue Mission.
Help-Portrait captured the first image of a mother and her daughter in October at the Los Angeles Skid Row Rescue Mission.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Help-Portrait gives professional portraits to the needy
  • Recipient: "I'm so blessed this was captured"
  • This year's photographs will be shared on CNN Photos blog

(CNN) -- "This is me and my daughter's first picture," a Los Angeles woman wrote on her portrait. "I'll always remember this moment and cherish this beautiful picture forever and ever. I'm so blessed this was captured."

This response from a recipient of a free portrait at the L.A. Skid Row Rescue Mission is what inspires celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart. His nonprofit, Help-Portrait, gives professional quality portrait photographs to people who could otherwise not afford them.

Cowart, who has taken photographs of celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow and the Kardashian sisters, recruits other photographers, makeup artists and stylists to volunteer their time, equipment and expertise for a day. For the first time, Help-Portrait will share this year's photographs with the world a week after the event, through their website and the CNN Photos blog.

David Bean shows participants their photos as he edits them.
David Bean shows participants their photos as he edits them.

"Part of the beauty of Help-Portrait is that it's a movement that belongs to the people," Cowart said. "All events are independently organized." Each local coordinator determines where their community's event will take place, with Cowart's general guideline of helping people in need.

The third annual event will take place in more than 50 countries around the world on December 10, with a new twist.

"Subjects will be encouraged to draw or illustrate on a copy of their photo and tell others who they are," Cowart said. He hopes that sharing these images with the world will allow others to "join us in celebrating stories of triumph, reconciliation and new beginnings."

This year, many photographers started early, including Karen Lim, whose blog "The Story of Bing" won the 2011 Singapore Blog Awards Best Lifestyle Blog. She recently traveled to Swaziland to capture portraits in an underprivileged local community.

The kids were very excited that they were going to have their photos taken. Some of them rushed to wash themselves clean to look smart for their shot
Karen Lim, photographer for Help-Portrait

"The kids were very excited that they were going to have their photos taken," Lim wrote on her blog. "Some of them rushed to wash themselves clean to look smart for their shot."

While she was there, Lim photographed a school for disabled children. She said she had to try to hold back tears with each photograph.

"But I burst into tears as soon as I started processing the shots," she wrote.

Lim added that some of the children had disfigured faces and bodies from birth, others from abuse. Some would never see their photo because they were blind.

"Sometimes I feel like it's such a small contribution on my part. I know how to take pictures, and I was just taking some pictures for some people. But to them, it's a huge thing."

Luanne Dietz, a photojournalist and middle school photography teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida, said she has volunteered for Help-Portrait since its beginning. This year she has selected five journalism students to participate and partner with her and other professional photographers.

The event will take place at the Mosley Motel, an establishment that houses 95 people; 57 are children.

"Not only do I have the opportunity to bring along some of my students to help who are from the very neighborhood the Mosley is in," Dietz said, "but I also get to open their eyes to the power they have to change the world through their talent."

Her team has paired with the motel to provide portraits during a block party. Going above and beyond, they have set up a clothing giveaway, free back massage, a bounce house, free barbecue and a movie on the lawn at sunset.

"So often in photojournalism I feel that photographers get wrapped up in the news frenzy of 'report the facts and let the viewer decide how to help,' " Dietz said. This year, she wants the photographers to be responsible for taking action.

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"Ace," a participant in Los Angeles, wrote, "Only God can judge me!"

Across the world, recipients of these portraits express their gratitude.

"Katrina took everything from me," a New Orleans participant said. "But now you are here to help me get something back, and I thank you for that."

Another in Calgary, Alberta, said, "You made me feel like I was special, like a rock star."

The past two years combined, the group has given more than 101,000 pictures to people in places like nursing homes, homeless shelters and children's cancer wings in hospitals.

"It started with a simple idea," founder Cowart said, "to give back with our skills and talent -- and it's blossomed into a grass roots, worldwide movement fueled by people hungry to give, instead of take, portraits."

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