Project X: Help Portrait

By Tema Stauffer

Queensbury High School students pose in the makeshift portrait studio they set up in a back room of the Open Door Mission in Glen Falls, New York

Anthony Aquino, a 2008 graduate of SUNY New Paltz, has run Queensbury High School’s photography program in upstate New York since 2009, working with up to 100 students a year. His program offers introductory and intermediate courses, exposing students to both traditional darkroom techniques and digital processes.

In December 2009, Aquino became aware of the organization Help-Portrait, through a video that went viral. Founded by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart, Help-Portrait aims to encourage photographers to use their time, gear and expertise to give back to those in need through volunteer portrait shoots. The organization has inspired photographers and volunteers to visit rescue missions, halfway houses, recovery programs, food kitchens, homeless shelters, churches and other sites in their communities and beyond and to create dignified portraits of people who, in some cases, have few photographs of themselves. Help-Portrait’s executive director, Kyle Chowning, describes these community events as an opportunity for “giving pictures rather than taking them,” reaching out to displaced families, victims of abuse and domestic violence and other vulnerable populations.

Queensbury High School student Alex Tuong sets up to shoot in the back room of the Open Door Mission in Glen Falls, New York. Photo courtesy of Anthony Aquino

The best way to get involved, Aquino thought, was to create an experience for his students to learn about shooting portraits of strangers and giving back to their community. In 2012, Aquino organized his school’s first shoot, at the Open Door Mission, a soup kitchen in Glen Falls, New York, on the first Saturday of December, the annual Help-Portrait Day worldwide. He showed students a video on Help-Portrait’s Web site and distributed a sign-up sheet for students who wanted to participate. He then selected nine students, the maximum the mission’s small space could accommodate.

This past December, Aquino and his students returned to the mission, armed with digital cameras, printers, computers and cords. The students set up a makeshift portrait studio in the back of the space and then approached potential subjects in the dining area during lunch to invite them to pose for a studio portrait. One visitor to the mission called the students “angels,” Aquino recalls. Another told a student, “You are the first person to make us smile.” A mother expressed her gratitude for the first picture of her two-month-old baby, and a father talked about how he finally had a picture of himself to send to his son.

Sophomore Tyra Wynn was apprehensive in the beginning, worried that the subjects would be embarrassed to be photographed. “This is really different from what I expected,” she later told Aquino. “I’m really glad that I came. It seems that everyone is really enjoying themselves and is grateful for the photographs.”

A couple poses for student Courtney Baker © Courtney Baker

Within an hour and a half, the students had photographed 30 subjects and provided them with prints produced on-site. For Aquino, it was rewarding to see students interact with strangers and develop ways to become more outgoing and engaging as young photographers. “It’s great for the people who get their pictures taken,” he concludes. “It’s equally great for the students involved. They get to see the impact of giving back to people. It’s contagious. They will be more willing to volunteer their time in the future.”

Photographers and photography instructors who are interested in facilitating a Help-Portrait event in their own communities can find more about getting involved on Help-Portrait’s Web site.



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