Tomorrow is Help-Portrait Day, a day that mobilizes photographers worldwide to lend their time and photography skills to their local communities. To learn a little more about Help-Portrait day, I enlisted the help of Adobe Computer Scientist Max Wendt, a veteran of the program.
Tell us about yourself! What’s your role on the Adobe Camera Raw team?
Max: I am based in Madison, Wisconsin and have been a Computer Scientist with Adobe for over fifteen years. My background is in music — I have a degree in saxophone performance, and am currently studying the double bass — so my focus on performing arts photography was a natural extension of that. I also run a small photography business, primarily serving the performing arts community. I’m relatively new to the Adobe Camera Raw team. I have been working on camera and lens profiles, as well as the DNG utilities.
What is Help-Portrait, and what compelled you to get involved?
Max: Help-Portrait is a way for photographers to give back to their communities. The idea is very simple and open-ended: find someone in need, take and print their portrait, and give it to them. The details of exactly whom to shoot and how that’s done is up to the photographer.
In practice, it often becomes a bigger thing: many photographers form groups and work together to serve more people. Non-photographer volunteers join in and help in many ways: assisting shoots with large groups, translating for non-native speakers, organizing events, donating food or clothes, etc.
I first got involved with Help-Portrait when my friend Kelly Doering introduced me to the idea. Those first few years we were small and scrappy, but we brought along Santa and Mrs. Claus, and donations of hats, mittens, and scarves from a local knitting guild. We got a great response, and I really did feel like I got more out of it than I was giving.
The last two years, our smaller group has joined forces with a group organized by Amandalynn Jones and Jim Gill. We transformed a local food pantry into a temporary photo studio on Help-Portrait Day. We set up six shooting bays and a small reception area with a table of knitted goods and live music. In order to better align with the food pantry’s schedule, we did Help-Portrait Day a week early this year. We had 139 sessions with 476 people, eight dogs, and one cat. Fourteen photographers shot throughout the day, many taking multiple shifts, and a small army of other helpers made everything run smoothly.
What does Help-Portrait mean to you as a photographer and an Adobe engineer?
Max: Help-Portrait is a way for me to really give something meaningful back to the community. Charitable donations are obviously important and helpful, and I do that as well, but — by its nature — just writing a check or donating online is disconnected from the causes you’re helping.
One of my favorite aspects of photography is interacting with the people whose photos I’m making; for me, photography is definitely a collaboration. I have fun doing what it takes to get the look we’re after; I’ll get goofy and silly if that’s what it takes to get a kid to lose the plastered-on “photo face” and bust a real smile (for that matter, if smiles are what we’re after, a lot of my grown up subjects need this, too!).
I also love seeing people’s reactions to my photos of them. Nearly everyone coming to Help-Portrait has never seen a photo of themselves with nice lighting. When they see the shots on the back of the camera, they just light up! “Ooh! You make me look gooooood!” Once they see that first shot, they generally get really into it and have fun with their sessions. They’re so excited to have a nice photo of their families, not just for themselves, but also to give to their extended families.
It’s so rewarding to be able to bring that much joy to someone while doing something we love.
It’s also fun to get together with a whole bunch of photographers and talk shop!
Do you have any unique stories from your experience?
Max: My studio work tends to focus on solo portraits and headshots. So shooting large groups was a fun challenge for me. My biggest group of the day was fourteen, and included a nine-month-old baby. As we were getting them posed, I was thinking “there is no way I’m going to get a single good shot of everyone before the baby is fed up with this!” But she was a champ! She never got fussy, she was easy to work with, and best of all, she was super cute! One of her older brothers, on the other hand, just froze up whenever I would bring the camera to my eye. He was as relaxed and happy as could be and then — BAM! — he’d stifle his smile and try to have his “photo face.” I ended up shooting from the hip in order to keep him relaxed, which he thought was hilarious. He especially liked when I showed him my first few attempts at doing it, in which I didn’t get the shot framed well and cut off his head (and through this all, the baby kept it together).
The other end of the spectrum is also pretty fun. I had this group of three kids and their mom. These kids could not stop hamming it up. They were very sweet with each other, and worked together well, but they would not be serious at all. I thought it was great, but their mother — while knowing her kids were going to do this — was hoping for a non-goofy shot. I ended up getting a few when they weren’t expecting it, which made it a fun game. When we were done and she was looking at the photos, she was so happy with what we had captured, she was moved to tears.
Those are the moments that really make me love Help-Portrait.