Kaysville • As an ex-banker who helped the Salt Lake County Housing Authority with financial education and counseling, photographer Chris Dickinson discovered first-hand how many families and even the homeless struggled to meet their basic needs.
Something as simple and as precious as a family portrait would be beyond the means of many.
In 2009, Dickinson discovered a charity called Help Portrait founded by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart in Tennessee. It was based on four simple ideas:
1. Find someone in need.
2. Take their portrait.
3. Print their portrait.
4. Deliver it to them.
Dickinson brought the program to Utah four years ago. Last year, in pre-Christmas photo sessions in Ogden and Salt Lake, he and a group of volunteer professional portrait photographers provided 1,600 people with a 15-minute photo session, an 8 x 10 printed portrait, and a disc filled with all the photos taken at the session, all free of charge.
Davis County Housing and Behavioral Health will sponsor the first of three Wasatch Front events Nov. 10 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Davis County Behavioral Health office in Kaysville. Others are planned Dec. 8 at the Columbus Library from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and at the Marshall White Community Center in Ogden from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Ui Pendergrass, family self-sufficiency coordinator for Davis County, projects that close to 400 families will have their family portraits taken Nov. 10. Walk-ins are also being accepted with no one being turned away.
"When Chris first presented it [Utah Help Portrait] a few years ago, I thought it was kind of neat to hear the stories that came through," she said. "I worked the one in Ogden last year. It's so much fun. For the first time, families don't have to provide income like they normally do for any other service. They come in. It's a family event. There are cute pictures."
Dickinson and other volunteer photographers come away from a long day of portrait shooting and even longer days processing, printing and organizing the pictures feeling as if they are doing something worthwhile. Most talk about the people they meet.
Last year, for example, he shot a photo of a single father from South Africa who came in with his five sons. His wife had been killed in violence. At Ogden, a foster mother brought in three unrelated foster boys who were 15 and 16 years old.
"The foster mother was hellbent on having one of the boys take off his hat," said Dickinson. "I spent 15 minutes with each boy and some were shot without the hat, some without. The boy asked me if I would come up and shoot his high school dance…I got a letter from the foster mother after it was over and she told me how much her boys enjoyed the shoot. It was a touching story."
Miyo Strong, a third generation portrait photographer with Salt Lake-based Busath photography, said she can't think of a better way to start off the holiday season because doing something for others really makes you appreciate everything you have in your own life.
"Last year, I photographed a single parent family," said Strong. "It was a single father with five children, four girls and a boy, who had never had a family picture taken. The oldest was a teenager. To go 15 or 16 years without a family portrait broke my heart. It was really meaningful. There was a great family dynamic going. It was really fun how well the dad was doing with the kids."
When the shoot finished, the lone girl came up to Strong to thank her.
"You made me feel so beautiful," the girl told her. "That is priceless for young girls. It is important for them to feel beautiful."
Photographer Ben Haslam, who helped start Utah Help Portrait with Dickinson, said he enjoys seeing the nervous excitement many of his subjects have before the session.
"For a lot of people, it's been a long time since they have had that experience," he said. "They want to be there. They feel special that day. It's a rewarding experience to provide someone some happiness and fun, for free."
Dickinson continues to look for donations to help pay for printing costs or for photographers willing to volunteer their time in the program. Click here to access the group's donation link.
"We don't define 'someone in need,'" said Dickinson. "If anyone is struggling, financially or just having a hard time getting by – just anyone who couldn't otherwise afford professional photography – we're here for them. It's their 15 minutes of sunshine and smiles."
Internationally, to date, the group's volunteers have taken 169,523 portraits by 15,558 photographers and 21,447 volunteers at 1,520 locations in 56 countries.
Twitter @tribtomwharton If you're interested in donating your time as a photographer or money to help pay for supplies, visit https://help-portrait.donortools.com/my/funds/46973-Help-Portrait-Salt-Lake-City-UT-2012