Artists have created self-portraits since the beginning of time. Historically, an artist’s self-portrait has been known “as a public test of the artist’s skill.” A self-portrait, in artistic circles, could prove your worth.

Not only that, but wealthiest members of society have always commissioned portraits of themselves and their family as a way to prove their social standing. Painted portraits became especially popular from the Renaissance period on, where what you had hanging on your way reflected your place in society.

While the technological development of the camera, film and then digital brought photography to the masses, professional portraiture still remains a luxury most of the world cannot afford.

So when celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart began to dream of a way he could give back to his local community, two things became obvious: He’d use his camera, and he’d invite other photographers to join him.

Help-Portrait is a global event each December when photographers, stylists and other volunteers team together to give, instead of take, photos. The name turns the phrase “self-portrait” on its head, placing the focus on helping others.

The premise is simple:

  1. Find someone in need.
  2. Take their portrait.
  3. Print their portrait.
  4. Deliver it to them.

But why photos? What about the tangible needs of these people?

Good questions.

First of all, Help-Portrait events are independently organized, but most groups often work with local nonprofits to find their subjects. When doing this, groups not only set up set up backdrops, lights and makeup stations in homeless shelters, hospitals and poverty-stricken areas to give portraits to those who would never otherwise have them, they often provide a hot meal, clothes, shoes and a safe place for kids to play for the day.

We do meet physical needs. But we also believe the photo provides the most value. At these events the portrait becomes more than a representation of a person’s likeness or a keepsake. It becomes a receipt of an exchange between individuals, and the currency is dignity, courage, love and hope.

“Poverty steals a lot of things, like your home and car and food, but it also steals something on the inside,” Annie Downs, Help-Portrait’s Events Coordinator said. “Help-Portrait feeds that something on the inside.”

For many subjects, this photograph may symbolize the start of a new life, a celebration of sobriety, the first time one has ever felt beautiful or the only family photo that now exists. Phillip Jackovich, a Help-Portrait subject, surmised, “This portrait represents where I’m going, not where I’ve been.”

For many photographers, this experience may be the most fulfilling of their career to date. They may walk away with altered perspectives and newfound friends. Cowart says the event crosses cultural borders on one side of the camera and competitive borders on the other.

When people come together to work toward the common good, something magical and tangible is produced. It may look like picture, but it’s often worth more than a thousand words.

How would you answer the question, “How does Help-Portrait help?”