To be seen

In 2009 Nashville-based photographer Jeremy Cowert put out an internet challenge to photographers everywhere to use their talents to help those in need by taking their portraits and delivering prints to them. He called the event Help-Portrait and it, as they say, went viral. In cities in countries around the world photographers and other volunteers gave of their time, equipment and more importantly their talents to photograph the needy.

The 5th annual Help-Portrait was held on Dec. 7. Once again I arranged Stockton’s own event to photograph dozens of people, families and individuals at the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless.

For the first time in five years I didn’t shoot a single portrait. I spent my time downloading and editing pictures but the subjects were in good photographic hands. Two of the photographers were two longtime friends of mine, Karen Kline of San Leandro and Ben Wong of Sacramento who brought along his 17-year-old niece Maddi Van Rotz. They were joined by wedding/portrait photographer Gina Halferty of Tracy, Mike Clipka with the Stockton Camera Club, Kevin Richtik, owner of Stockton-based Caroline’s Photography and Ken Sato of Ken Sato Studios of Lodi.

Along with the photographers we had help from hairstylist Jen Pascua who once had the need of the shelter’s services, and several students from the Hollywood Beauty College.

Former Record graphics editor Sheldon Carpenter helped with the downloading and editing and Tim Ulmer of Ulmer Photo in downtown Stockton donated equipment for making the photographic prints on site for the 5th year.

Record photo editor Craig Sanders donated had to work that day but donated some equipment for us to use. Although he worked, his wife Judi brought some much appreciated sandwiches for the crew to eat during lunchtime. Finally, my wife Susan also helped out by operating the print machine and running some helpful errands.

As I downloaded photos of a single father and his two daughters who sat next to me, the first picture to come up was just a shot of the background without anyone in it. It was a test shot that photographers commonly take to check on the lighting and exposure. The next frame had the family in it. I quickly toggled between the two shots and it looked like they would magically disappear and reappear. I joked to the kids “Look! You’re invisible!” The girls giggled as I made their image pop in and out.

It later dawned on me that those who are homeless are often considered invisible to those of us who do not need the services of the shelter. They can be pushing a shopping down the street or standing on the corner with a cardboard sign. We try to ignore them as we walk by and avoid making eye contact. The shelter is even tucked away beneath a corner where Interstate-5 and the Crosstown Freeway meet in a neighborhood that’s not the best. In effect they are unseen by the rest of us. Help-Portrait aims to make those that society may consider “invisible” to feel worthy of being seen again.

We shot photos of dozens of people as individuals and in families. Many never had a formal picture taken of themselves or their children.

At one point I looked up to see Karen Kline photographing 12-year-old D.J. Nelson and his 9-year-old sister Grace. Kline tried to get their father Duane Nelson to sit with them for a family portrait but he declined. He just stood back and watched Kline take pictures of his children. I took a short break from my photo editing duties and walked over to Nelson. I told him that being a photographer I have a lot of pictures of my late father, but because I was always behind the camera, I have very few photos of he and I together. I said that when his kids are older they’re going to want photos of him. That even though they may be going through hard times now at least they had each other and a family photo would be proof of that.

I went back to my computer to continue my editing duties and in a few minutes I looked up again and saw Nelson posing for with his children with a look of pride in his son and joy in his daughter. As a family were no longer invisible but worth being seen.

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