The Common Good

A Celebrity Photographer's Faith-Driven Cause

Portraits may seem like a staple in every home, but for many families, a professional photo is beyond reach.

 Jeremy Cowart via RNS
A Help-Portrait photo illustrates a first portrait of a mother and daughter. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Cowart via RNS

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Each year, the nonprofit Help-Portrait pulls together professional photographers to spend one Saturday taking free portraits of people who normally can’t afford it.

Help-Portrait founder Jeremy Cowart is a celebrity photographer who has shot famous names such as Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow and the Kardashians and has been published in publications such as Rolling Stone, People magazine and The New York Times.

Like a number of Christians driven by their faith to set up humanitarian nonprofits, Cowart is motivated to do good.

“My favorite quote is, ‘Preach the gospel to the world and when necessary use words,’” said the 36-year-old photographer who grew up in a Christian home and attends Journey Church outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

A few years ago, Cowart said, he noticed a trend around Advent Conspiracy, an idea sparked by pastors Greg Holder, Chris Seay, and Rick McKinley to fight excessive consumption during the holidays.

“They asked why are we buying each other useless stuff? Why don’t we do something with our hands and time?” Cowart said. “I wanted to figure out how to share my gifts and talents, how I could use my photography for good.”

This year’s Help-Portrait took place Dec. 7, the fifth year of its annual gathering. Photographers shot photos of 41,415 people at 258 events in 37 countries. These were not quickie mug shots, either. On top of the 2,414 photographers, 611 hairstylists and 807 makeup artists helped people look their best.

Rick Rychel, a participant in this year’s and last year’s shoots, said he has seen firsthand how the photo sessions change people’s attitudes.

After five years in prison for grand theft auto, Rychel moved to Nashville with $1.75 in his pocket and lived in a homeless mission where he now works. This year, he encouraged his friend Andrew to get his photo taken.

“I had never seen him smile before,” Rychel said. “I said, ‘Look, Andrew, if you don’t smile, I’m going to tickle you.’ He beamed up.”

Between hair and makeup, everyone treated Andrew “like a superstar or something,” Rychel said.

“I was looking at Andrew like I did myself at one point,” Rychel said. “Now he doesn’t walk with his head down. It was what he needed to come out of that shell.”

Since Help-Portrait’s founding, Cowart said he’s heard all the stories: the mother who told him it was her first family portrait and the family that lives in a mud hut somewhere in the Global South.

For many who attend the sessions, it is the first professional photo they have ever had. When stylists volunteer, the portrait subjects can get makeup and hair done first. Many will send their photos back home to parents or siblings or children with postage and mailing supplies from Help-Portrait.

The difference between shooting celebrities and people for Help-Portrait couldn’t be starker, Cowart said.

“You’re capturing a person who’s excited to be there,” he said. “For a celebrity, it’s another photographer, another day in the life that means nothing to them. Many times they’re counting the minutes till it’s done.”

Cowart, who has two children and is adopting another two from Haiti, shifted from design into photography in 2005. Quickly he made his way into the celebrity photography world, but he didn’t want it to be the only aspect he was recognized for.

“At the end of my life, I don’t want to be known as just being another celebrity photographer,” he said. “Using my platform, I wanted to use that to point to things that matter, that are bigger than me, whether that’s a Christian cause or for people in general.”

Help-Portrait is officially set up as a nonprofit, but it’s not complicated to implement in places across the country or the world, he said.

“It’s as simple as finding someone in need,” he said. “There’s no sign up process. It’s about empowering communities.”

Getting someone to open up, though, can be a challenge, as many people have preconceived fears about cameras.

“Some people are insecure or afraid of the cameras,” he said. “To get someone vulnerable and to open up can be extremely powerful.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey writes for Religion News Service.

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