22 December 2009

sometimes, you will have no idea what you are doing

Me doing my Help-Portrait thang
The Aloha Inn, Seattle
20 December 2009
Photo Credit: orionlee

That describes my experience on Sunday at the Help-Portrait event at which I volunteered at The Aloha Inn in Seattle, a transitional housing facility for individuals seeking to make their way out of homelessness. I was totally on board when I heard about Help-Portrait, which I saw as a chance to meld my burgeoning love of photography with a desire also to be of service to the homeless.

Help-Portrait is the brain/heart-child of Jeremy Cowart, a professional photographer who has photographed oodles and oodles of famous people; you've probably seen plenty of his work without even knowing it. I found out about Help Portrait when I read this entry on Donald Miller's blog in early September. The idea was simple: take portraits of and give prints of them to people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to have a decent portrait taken. No minimum skill level, no fancy camera equipment or skills needed. Just as willingness to show up and a heart to give.

So like I said: I was totally on board. I just had no idea I'd be such a fish out of water, complete with desperate flopping, dramatic flailing in search of a safe pool, and feeling all slimy, slippery, and scaly to boot (hopefully not the smelly part; the team could probably best speak to that point).

Since we've been married, I've joined with James in his passion for serving the homeless, and so this was too perfect an opportunity. But for someone who has been happily clicking away with her DSLR without really knowing what she was doing, I felt like I was thrown into the deep end when I (gulp) volunteered to be the portrait photographer and (double-gulp) somehow ended up at the last minute as the event coordinator. Luckily a lot of groundwork had been laid by others who held their events earlier in the month (the "official" Help-Portrait day was December 12), but until we got there and the event started, I was insanely tense and nervous about my roles for the day.

denise @ helpportrait
The lovely Denise, our roaming photographer
Taken with Blackberry camera phone

There is a part of me that would like to say that it all went off without a hitch -- that was a natural behind the camera, that I was a pro at drawing my more reluctant subjects out of their shells. I adjusted my camera settings with ease and kept everything moving along smoothly. This was so clearly not the case.

I had no idea how to set up the lights or where to put the backdrop. The white balance on my camera -- how do I adjust that again? What mode should I shoot in? Why do my test shots look so washed out? How do you find suitable poses for people? What type of memory card do I have? And how in the world (pray tell) have I been taking pictures this long without knowing these things?

These are all things I fumbled through awkwardly, and not without quite a bit of help. Other volunteers helped me with my settings and my white balance, with suggestions and ideas. James moved the backdrop to a better location. Sam happily cropped and processed photos all by himself. Annie coaxed smiles and confident postures from our subjects. All were warm and wonderful people. Instead of feeling like an idiot, I felt like I was being helped myself. I was doubly inspired by the brave and healing souls who were the subjects of our photographs.

I have a lot to learn when it comes to photography. I am living proof that it's shockingly easy to take beautiful pictures with a DSLR without knowing half of what the darn thing (the "darn thing" being the camera) can do. In the meantime, it's good to know that there are those who can make up for what I lack and who are more than willing to share their expertise without condescension. And for those times when I don't have a clue what I am doing, maybe I will remember that even then, me having it together is not the point.

Sometimes, I will have absolutely no idea what I am doing. And somehow even then, it will be okay.

NOTE: I would love to share some of the portraits with you that were taken at the event. Most of our subjects (understandably) signed forms affirming that they would like their privacy protected and not have their photos posted in any public forum. There were a few brave souls, however, that said they would love to have their images shared. Once processed, I'll happily share those portraits!!


  1. I love that you did this and how it all worked out. Here's to many, many portrait sessions in your future!

  2. I so love that you did this, too. You are a path-carver, my friend. So great that you were willing to jump into new roles, even though they took you way outside your comfort zone.

    I'm also loving what you learned through this experience. I can only imagine how stressful and anxiety-provoking those moments of not knowing what to do felt like. It would have made my stomach feel all tied up in knots, and it would have taken all of me not to totally lose it. I'm so glad you had many helpful friends surrounding you and that their help helped you ... so you could keep going in helping others.

  3. this is such an amazing post- and a brilliant idea.I would love to have participated in such an event- all those things you listed above are things I want to know more about when it comes to shooting my camera. Plus giving back just seems so right.
    your words remind me of one of my mantras. When ever i am in a place where I am unsure, I repeat over to myself again and again, "trust". Trust that the Universe has a plan, that I know things, that others are very willing to help when I don't know things and that everything can workout if I believe in myself and in others.

  4. amazing post. beautiful. brilliant. full of what matters.

  5. @Sarah
    Thanks, girl. I hope there are many more, as well!!

    I was waaaaaaay outside my comfort zone which, as I said to James on the way there, is not necessarily a bad thing. I just felt like people didn't really believe me when I told them I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe they didn't either. And my thought, I realized, was more about my pride than about what we were extending to the brave people who participated. My skills and abilities were beside the point.

    So, despite the knotted stomach and the butterflies, I think we came away with some good stuff. And people were appreciative, too. What we were doing mattered to them. I think more than anything, that was the point.

    You should see about participating next time it comes around!! This was the first year, so I think there's been a lot of ironing out of kinks: what works and what doesn't, etc. I'm not sure if the 2010 date has been released yet or not, but I know that's supposed to happen soon.

    That is a wonderful mantra, about trusting: trusting in the goodness of others, in the knowledge and abilities you *do* possess, that it will all work out. Thanks for visiting.

    Sigh. Thank you, sweet lady. This day definitely mattered to a lot of people. :o)