The man who sat down in front of the black photographic backdrop told me he will turn 50 next year. He looked older, but on Saturday afternoon, he admitted to me the last 28 years in California have been hard for him. He’d been in and out of jail, for one thing. “I wanted that fast money,” he said. “But I’ve learned that slow money, or even no money, is better.”
Under the diffused glow of the studio lights, he told me how the system was tightening up. Once, people could just hang out at the Berkeley Free Clinic during the day if they didn’t have another place to go, he said. Once, you could get a hot dinner for a quarter at the very same church where we had set up four studio stations to shoot photographs that day. But now things have changed, and he said he could see how more and more people might prefer jail to life on the streets.
He had seen a sign about our volunteer day: It was a Help-Portrait event, where we invited those served by this particular Berkeley-based nonprofit to let us take their portrait for free, and they could walk away with a professional print. This year, photographers volunteering for Help-Portrait served more than 34,000 people in at least 32 countries on a single day. “Other people said, ‘I’m not coming, I don’t need a picture,’” he announced. “But I said, ‘These people are giving us their time.’”
The man asked the volunteer photographer to shoot him twice: Once with a Santa hat, and once without. He wanted to send the photos to his family back in Baltimore, with a holiday greeting. “They haven’t seen me in a long time,” he said. “They have money, so they don’t need something that costs money from me. But this, I can give them this, and it’ll mean something.”
We handed him the photograph of himself in the hat, and he broke out in a smile. One of the volunteers asked him to sit underneath the lights again so they could get a photo of him holding the printed portrait. He obliged, and then, when everyone melted backward, turning their focus to the next action, the next person in the wings, he sat there.
He looked down at the photo in his hands. He shook his head. And then he bowed deeply as if in prayer, just for a moment, then slipped the image into a manila envelope for safekeeping.
A photograph doesn’t change the fundamental nature of a person’s life. It’s a moment, measured in thousandths of a second, and it doesn’t erase the struggles before, nor stave off the struggles after. Earlier this Fall, a video of a homeless Michigan veteran transformed by makeup, hair and wardrobe artists went viral. Days after it spread across the Internet, the media reported he had been arrested after he allegedly created a disturbance in a Burger King. The same voices that hailed his video triumph lamented his fall, as if the video had fixed everything and the veteran himself had broken things again on purpose.
Making someone beautiful for a moment, helping them see themselves through the eye of a camera, doesn’t give anyone the down payment on a new apartment, or erase years of abuse, or take away alcohol or drug addiction.
Before we started taking portraits that day, the development director for the organization we were serving talked about how their staff could provide a blanket for someone who needed it, or shelter, or food.
“But what you are doing here,” he said, “is feeding their souls.”
I believe we all deserve to have moments that feed our souls. And I know all of us who participated fed our own souls in the process of feeding the souls of the grandparents, the children, the shy Asian man who blossomed into a movie star in front of the camera, the fierce women who would have been equally at home at a fashion shoot.
Later in the morning, I was taking behind-the-scenes shots of a mother and son who I’d met in the make-up room. The son and I had tossed a giant pink exercise ball back and forth over and over again, him squealing with joy each time he caught it, me praising him every time for managing to catch and throw a ball almost bigger than he was.
Now they were in front of the camera, and the mother was all made up beautifully, and the son was wriggling in her lap, uninterested in the whole posing concept. Another volunteer squatted down to distract him, and the photographer got one beautiful shot of the two, then another. Then they talked the boy into dancing on the floor mark where the light hit best so they could get a solo shot of him in his full, delighted glory. He danced, his shoes lighting up on the sides as his feet bounced off the hardwood.
The development director came up next to me as I watched. “This is amazing,” I said to him. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here.”
“All these beautiful human beings have a story,” he said.
His eyes were as damp as mine.
A woman with weathered features wearing a knit cap stood in front of the camera. The shutter snapped, and the images popped up on the tethered laptop: one of her staring straight forward, one of her with her eyes cast down and her hands in prayer position. Any photographer would have been proud to capture these beautiful, dignified images.
“Do you want one where you’re smiling?” asked the photographer working on her portrait.
“Yes,” the woman said, and she nodded solemnly. And yet, her face, for the remainder of the shots, remained set in the same position as before, deadpan and serious.
When she sat down to look through the options, she shook her head. “I don’t like any of these,” she said. “I’m not smiling in any of them.”
“Would you like to take some more?” asked the photographer. “We can try it again.”
“I really thought I was smiling,” the woman said.
“That is what I was trying to do.”
She agreed to pose again, but only after asking that a cross she was wearing be visible in the final shot. The photographer arranged her under the lights once more, made sure the camera angle caught the necklace. The woman’s smile emerged, her face as bright as the studio lights. The lines softened. Her eyes glimmered from just underneath the edge of her knit cap.
“That’s it,” she said, when she sat down again and chose her shot. Finally, she had remembered how to smile.