Under warm studio lights, people who have fallen during hard times sit before photographers and are shown a side of themselves they may not always see.
They have just gone through a brief hair and makeup session and are now about to have their portrait taken for the holiday season. It’s all thanks to Help Portrait Milwaukee, a non-profit group run by 34-year-old Matt Heltsley of Fox Point.
“The idea is that we take a portrait and give a portrait,” Heltsley said. This is the third year the group has been in action. The non-profit got started three years ago by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart. He called out to photographers across the country to take pictures for the less fortunate as a way to give back.
Heltsley and fellow photographer Rob Gustafson had been looking for charities to get involved with for a while, but nothing seemed to fit. “You know when you donate to a cause and you send them money, but you don’t really get to participate? We were looking for something to participate in, but there was nothing that took advantage of our specific skill sets,” Heltsley said.
So when the Help Portrait project came up, he thought it was a great idea. Heltsley and Gustafson answered the call and started the Milwaukee chapter in 2008.
That first year they thought they were only going to get 10 or so photographers to sign up for the project. Instead, a total of 40 joined the cause.
Poverty is central theme
This year, more than 50 have volunteered. Help Portrait Milwaukee will take photos at seven locations this year: Repairers of the Breach, St. Ben’s Community Meal, Pathfinders, St. Anne’s, Hope House, Mercy House and Meta House.
Not all of these places are homeless shelters. Meta House is a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that specializes in women with families. St. Anne’s is a retirement home that has special meaning to Heltsley. His grandfather, who was also a photographer, had Alzheimer’s and lived there before he passed away.
Heltsley said all of these groups are visited by Help Portrait because they share something. “All of these places touch on different aspect of it, but they all touch on one central theme … poverty and the effects of poverty," he said.
Volunteers with Help Portrait went to the seven sites in early December and saw between 300 and 500 people total.
Once at the location site, volunteers set up a mini studio equipped with a backdrop, lights, a printer, hair and makeup stations and people to entertain children. Once everything is set up and ready to go, people are brought in to have their portraits taken. When the process is done, they definitely don’t go away empty-handed.
“We give them at 4x6 inside a Christmas card. In the past we’ve given them the option of a larger size as well. This year besides the options, we’re giving them the 4x6 and an 8x10 to write on, to collaborate with us and make art that they’re a part of,” Heltsley said.
The art will be used by Help Portrait Milwaukee to explain to other shelters what the program is all about. The idea is to expand to other locations next holiday season so more people can have their photos taken.
'See something they like'
“So often we view the homeless as anonymous. Even physically we turn away from them if we pass them on the street,” said Brother Dave Schwab of St. Ben’s Community Meal. “And these guys, with their mission, are recognizing that they’re human beings and I think that’s a tremendous thing.”
Schwab, who has served as the director of St. Ben’s for the past eight years, said they let people know about the event ahead of time so they can decide if they want to participate.
Schwab believes the program gives each person the respect that they need. “All of us like to have our picture taken," he said. "We may not always like what we see, but for a homeless person, it gives them the opportunity to see something they like.”
For amateur photographer Mark Johnson, Help Portrait has been a great way to get involved with something in a new city. Originally from Scotland, he moved to Milwaukee four years ago from Asia and did not know anyone. Eventually, though, he met a few people who introduced him to Help Portrait. “I was not only introduced to Help Portrait, but also the strong sense of community which this group has,” said Johnson. “This was great for me, as it really helps to feel integrated and part of something when you find yourself working in a different location.”
Johnson, who said his favorite part about volunteering with Help Portrait is the smiles he receives, believes the act of taking the pictures does something bigger for each person. “The photographs are the end result, but the process of just being there, listening, laughing and sharing is important too,” said Johnson. “To let people know that no matter what circumstances they may be in, the beauty of who they are can still shine through.”
Most of the supplies needed to do the photo shoots are already owned by the volunteer photographers, but there are a few expenses for the group. Ink and paper to print the photographs on are needed each year. This year, the group raised about $1,000 to pay for supplies.
Heltsley said they are working hard to expand to more sites next year, which may include a few more retirement homes. For him, the work is coming quite naturally. “I’ve tried to be a responsible citizen and give back how I can … but this takes it to a whole new level.” Heltsley said. “Someone else is really benefiting from what I’m doing.”
Matt Heltsley has been chosen as the Huffington Posts's Greatest Person of the Day, which features stories of people across the nation who are confronting major issues and making a difference in their community.