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Worldwide photo shoot turns camera on those often overlooked

By Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt, CNN
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Volunteer portraits
  • Photographer Jeremy Cowart used Internet to generate interest in Help Portrait
  • He wanted a chance for disadvantaged people to get professional photos taken
  • More than 6,000 volunteers across the globe took part in December 12 project
  • Says one participant: "He's ... making people feel great. I feel like a movie star"

New York (CNN) -- Jeremy Cowart is a professional artist in Nashville, Tennessee, who has photographed rock stars such as Sting and Britney Spears. But on Saturday, he turned his lens on people unlikely to be recognized by anyone but family.

Cowart staged a one-day, worldwide photo shoot called Help Portrait.

"We just want to show people that they are beautiful, that they are valued," Cowart told CNN.

Cowart used the Internet months ago to spread his idea: shoot everyday people, especially the disadvantaged, the homeless, people down on their luck and struggling families. He wanted to make them feel special.

"I believe in people. I think that people really do want to give back, and photographers especially tend to be very passionate people. When you combine Christmas and serving people, I really believed it would be a no-brainer."

Cowart was right. His idea took off like a rocket.

Even he was shocked. More than 6,000 volunteers, including photographers, make-up artists, lighting specialists and others pitched in. In more than 24 hours, they logged more than 30,000 portraits and at least that many smiles.

The movement sprung up in nearly every state and in almost 60 countries, including China and Australia. Cowart chose December 12, so that people could have their portraits for the holidays.

A variety of people were photographed: Homeless people. A woman helped by a community center who wanted to send her photo to her soldier son serving in Iraq. A mother who never thought she'd have her makeup professionally done, let alone pose for cameras under fancy lighting.

I'm going to remember it forever.
--Single mother Amanda Leon

"Everyone tells me, 'Don't worry. Your special day is coming,' said struggling single mom Amanda Leon. She's helped by a social service organization called Betel International.

"I'm going to remember it forever ... and think 'wow, it happened to me."

Nicole Jones and Stephanie Miller figured they'd probably never get the chance of a formal photograph, much less be able to afford it. Help Portrait made their dreams and those of thousands of others come true. And they weren't charged a thing.

"It's wonderful. It's great,' said Jones. She says she once did time for armed robbery. Her friend Miller is a recovering pill addict.

They're grateful to Cowart.

"He's ... making people feel great. I feel like a movie star. He's awesome," said Miller.

Photographer Abi Litwa never met Cowart, but when she heard about his project, she says she had to help.

"I just thought it was brilliant," she said.

Litwa organized a shoot with over 30 volunteers at a community center in Queens, New York. Seeing struggling families light up in front of the lens was inspiring.

"Just for a moment, they felt really beautiful and thought 'I'm someone special,' " Litwa added.

New York photographer Declan Julian edited the digital photos that were printed on a machine donated by Kodak.

"People out here care about (these families). And it shows that technology is being used in not just selfish reasons," he added.

In Nashville, the Carter family stood in line to take advantage of the offer. They say their youngest son, Barret, has cancer. They can't afford a portrait. They're also uncertain about their future.

"We're just thankful for each picture. You never know when it's gonna be the last."

Cowart knows he's touching a lot of people. 'It's humbling," he says. "It's like a reminder to me that photography is a very special gift, as cheesy as that sounds."

Because of its debut success, Cowart plans to repeat Help Portrait next Christmas.

Grandmother Janelle French gave a kiss to her granddaughter in her portrait.

"It's all about love."