PORTRAITS OF SOUTH FLORIDA

Photographers help transform people in need

 

The butterflies in my stomach woke me up earlier than usual — I always get them before a big shoot. I knew it would be a long day, but I had no clue that I was about to photograph the most meaningful and affecting portraits of the year.

Together with my husband and children, plus a few friends and several other photographers, I got to connect with more than 1,200 people in need, representing 323 diverse families who call South Florida home.

From infants to grandmas, the 6,000-plus-square-foot gym, buzzed with excitement as we began to capture thousands of smiles.

“Help-Portrait” was organized by The SoulCatchers, a group of South Florida photographers and other professionals who participate in this annual event, staged in many cities around the world. The idea behind Help-Portrait is simple: Find people in need, take their portrait, print it and give it to them. But the transformation that occurred in my mind and heart that day was far more complex and unexpected.

Although many of the families we photographed don’t have a place to call home, we didn’t talk about it. Why open the door to the stigma of being labeled “homeless”? They were simply families doing regular things, like getting dressed up for a family portrait. From the first click of my camera, I realized that the families before me could very well have been my neighbors or my friends — “they” could’ve been “us.”

As I cajoled smiles from children and nervous moms, I learned a little about their families. There was no need or reason to discuss their dire circumstances. The heavy hearts behind their smiles spoke volumes, as did the love and patience they showed for one another. After seeing a teenager acting goofy for his portrait, a disappointed 7-year-old said to me: “Aw, I wanted to take funny pictures, too!” His countenance flipped when I told him to come back; he lit up and began making funny faces, just like my son does when I point the camera toward him.

When I first heard the word “homeless,” I immediately thought of the guy at the I-95 exit holding a cardboard sign, the person with whom I avoid eye contact when I don’t have cash, or time, or the inclination to give. Eye contact is essential when photographing people. It is through the eyes that the heart’s expression is revealed. One by one, as they looked into my eyes, the men, women and children who stood before my camera that day taught me many things. The most important being that we’re exactly the same when it comes to our need to be accepted, respected and loved.

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