As soon as I walked into the Union Gospel building on East Hastings Street last Saturday, December 3, 2011, the atmosphere changed. The room was filled with live music, along with conversations of hundreds of people from all across the Lower Mainland. There was an undeniable feeling of warmth and joy in the air, and as I stepped into the crowds to explore this event, I understood why.
Founded in 2009 by celebrity photographer, Jeremy Cowart, Help-Portrait is a world-wide phenomenon taking place in 46 countries around the world and for the third time this year in Vancouver. Its purpose is to provide free photo-taking and printing for those who cannot afford it, such as low-income or homeless residents of the Downtown East Side. The particular event that I visited relied on over 75 photographers, make-up artists, hair stylists, volunteers and musicians who willingly signed up to help out at the event.
This year, the turnout was almost double last year’s, with 700 attendees in total. The completely free photograph services, along with hot chocolate and sandwiches, had a much greater influence on its attendees than what I had imagined. The entire process began at the sign-in table by the door, with friendly volunteers, including one of our own team members, Ovey Yeung. Then over to the make-up and hair stylists, who dedicated their talents to doll up anyone who wanted to enhance themselves for their photographs. Zoe, one of the hair stylists, commented that despite the fact that they were doing all of this for free, it’s “rewarding because these people don’t have a lot of self-confidence. When they see themselves they are extremely grateful and happy.” One of her clients, a woman who could hardly speak English, showered Zoe with thank you after thank you after taking in her transformation.
After the beautification, one joined the line-up which stretched from one corner of the room to the studio. The studio was split up into two parts: the photo-taking area and the selecting and printing area. First came the photo-taking, with six studios decked out in lighting, props, and of course, photographers busily snapping away their smiling models. As soon as one finished this part he or she headed over to the row of computers and printers, where volunteers displayed the photos and printed the two that the attendee selected. These photos could be sent to any relatives or friends across the country with the free envelopes and stamps that were prepared by Help-Portrait as well. Ironically, this selection process is where the event truly happens. As soon as their bright selves appeared on the screens, these attendees – most of who are not used to examining their appearance while dealing with life on the streets – lit up in delight. As Winston Wong, one of the photographers, stated,
It shows how gorgeous and how handsome these people are, and how they actually exist.
It’s much more than simply choosing and printing the photos. It’s a confirmation of the importance of every single individual, no matter how hard life may treat them.
I couldn’t help but feel so merry around all these people, who had nothing but love to give out. The room was filled with friends, families, volunteers, photographers, and there was a constant buzz of spirited conversation. I spotted some people sporting Christmas gear, including a man who came fully dressed up in a Mexican outfit. It was a heart-warming experience and I could hardly stop smiling from the warmth that filled me to the brim and kept me company for the rest of the day.
For more information on Help Portrait, visit there website at www.help-portrait.com.