As an ex-banker who helped the Salt Lake County Housing Authority with financial education and counseling, photographer Chris Dickinson discovered firsthand how many families and 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 8x10 printed portrait, and a disc filled with all the photos taken at the session, all free of charge.
After a Nov. 10 session in Davis County, the program continues Saturday at the Columbus Library and Community Center at 2530 S. 500 East and the Marshall White Community Center in Ogden from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Elizabeth Bioteau, self-sufficiency program coordinator for the Salt Lake County Housing Authority, has been involved with Help Portrait since its inception three years ago.
"I love the program," she said. "It is one of the highlights of my year. It is just a fun holiday event in general."
She said the housing authority usually has to worry about a host of regulations defining income limit and poverty levels. With this program, people can determine themselves whether they need the help and come down.
"So many of the clients we work with struggle with financially affording Christmas for their families," she said. "It would be nice to offer a service. They use the CD that the photographers give them to print photos and provide family members with low-cost gifts around the holidays. They can give a family photo and really not hurt their budgets too much."
Appointments for the Salt Lake event can be made by calling 801-284-4412, though the photographers usually manage to handle all walk-ins as well.
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. The man's wife had been killed in violence. In 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 with 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 her appreciate everything she has in her life.
"Last year, I photographed a single-parent family," she said. "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've had that experience, he said. "They want to be there. They feel special that day. It is a rewarding experience to provide someone some happiness and fun, for free."
Bioteau said one of the fun parts of participating in the program is seeing the same clients come back each year.
"There was a woman last year with a brand new set of twins, just delivered the weeks before. There are a lot of refugee families we work with, including a family from Somalia that includes a man and his three male sons…There is a family we have photographed every year with 20 family members. The grandmother gets them all together."
She said she loves looking at special outfits families have put together in order to make the portraits look special.
"We have always served everyone and never turned anyone away," said Bioteau. "This is the positive energy around the holidays that everybody wants but don't always get."
Dickinson continues to look for donations to help pay for printing costs or for photographers willing to volunteer to their time in the program.
"We don't define someone in need," he said. "If anyone is struggling, financially or just having a hard time getting byjust anyone who couldn't otherwise afford professional photographywe're here for them. It's their 15 minutes of sunshine and smiles."
If you are interested in donating your time as a photographer or money to help pay for supplies, visit the Help Portrait website by clicking here.