Help-Portrait a gift for those in need

Photographers donate services to those unable to afford a professional portrait

Editor's note: This story is the third in a series highlighting how local business, organizations, churches and schools give back this holiday season. The series will run every Tuesday in the Community section through Dec. 25.


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IOWA CITY – What happens when photographers turn their lenses on people in need?

Smiles. Thousands and thousands of smiles.

“It’s about helping people feel good about themselves,” says Justin Torner, an Iowa City freelance photographer and co-coordinator of Iowa City’s Help-Portrait event.

Help-Portrait is an international movement by professional photographer and philanthropist Jeremy Cowart that has photographers offering up their talent, time and equipment to shoot, print and give personal portraits free of charge.

The second Saturday in December is designated the one day each year in which photographers set up studios and take pictures of people unable to afford a professional portrait. Anyone who has their picture taken leaves with a print or disk that same day.

“It’s really just a simple concept,” Torner says.

A simple concept with a big impact. Since 2009, Help-Portrait has given more than 200,000 portraits to foster children, single parents, the elderly and the homeless.

Saturday’s event is the first for Iowa City, but Torner says the response has been great. More than 30 volunteers have signed on to help with Iowa City’s event, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Wesley Center 120 N. Dubuque St.

This group of volunteers includes at least three photography stations, and an editing and framing station. Hair and make-up will be provided by La'James International College, and there will be a clothing station for those who want to wear something different.

“I’m a big photography fan, so having a project like this, that helps people and increases their self-esteem through photography, speaks to me,” says Alicia Hoecherl, Help-Portrait Iowa City’s volunteer coordinator.

Help-Portrait Iowa City is available to anyone who shows up to the event on Saturday. There are no qualifications and the photographers will be set up to take photographs of individuals, couples and families.

Although the actual event is still a few days away, Torner and Hoecherl conducted a test run at Shelter House last week, taking pictures of men, women and family. Any self-consciousness that was there when people first stepped in front of the camera disappeared at Torner walked them through the process, coaxing smiles from those standing in front of his camera.

“We’re excited about this,” says Caitlin Owens, the volunteer and outreach coordinator at Shelter House. “It’s nice to be able to give something people might not otherwise afford.”

And that’s what it’s about, Torner says. The people.

“This event isn’t about us,” he says. “We’re not going to copyright these photos or add them to our portfolios. It’s about creating a memory; giving back to others and helping them feel good about themselves.”

It’s not too late to help Help-Portrait help others. Anyone interested in volunteering or donating to the project can do so by e-mailing Help-Portrait Iowa City at

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