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.
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!!