The Gift of a Picture

Help Portrait photo shoot at Diepsloot Combined School,
Johannesburg, South Africa, June 2012

When you’re moving to South Africa, inevitably you will become involved in charity work. There is almost no way around it. In fact, you might already have plans to volunteer somewhere in one form or another, and I am working on an upcoming blog post outlining several options for you to get started.

However, the one thing you probably didn’t have in mind was volunteering your services as a photographer. Not giving food, or clothing, or books, or tutoring, but giving a picture. Giving it to people who might never in their lives had their picture taken before.

One could argue that the very last thing people need, especially in a country like South Africa where there is so much need wherever you turn to, is a picture of themselves. They need food, they need warm blankets, they need books, they need running water and electricity and firewood, they need a roof over their heads, a roof, preferably, that doesn’t leak and doesn’t have to be weighed down with heavy boulders lest it fly away. They need education, above all. They need a million things before they might need a portrait photograph of themselves to hang on the wall.

They might not even have wished to have a picture of themselves or ever given any thought to the idea. And yet this is precisely why Help Portrait and the gift of a picture is so special. It’s a little bit like playing Santa Clause. Giving the unexpected to someone who doesn’t expect much at all. The luxury of a gift so utterly useless.

Kids lining up at the Kliptown Youth Centre earlier this year
to pick out their portraits. (I did not participate in that photo
shoot – just went along for the handouts)

““The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” I got this quote by Benjamin Disraeli off the Ubuntu Help Portrait website and it couldn’t be any more fitting to what Help Portrait is about.

If you had any doubts whether shooting pictures with Help Portrait and then handing them out to the proud recipients is worth it, all you’d have to do is see the pure joy on the faces of these kids – and adults; perhaps even more so the adults – when they pick out their photos.

Kids in a classroom trying to get my attention

It’s not just the joy of handing out the pictures that makes Help Portrait so rewarding. The actual shooting is a lot of fun too. Yes it’s utterly exhausting. Yes your camera comes home so dusty that your  husband may complain about what the hell happened to it. Yes you may curse and shout when you have to process 800 pictures in one weekend. Especially if it turns out after just 200 of them that your hard drive is chock full and needs backing up first to make room, which is when you discover that your network drive is faulty, meaning the backing up project takes two extra days. All that is hard work, and yet your heart will warm at the beauty of these faces and the antics and jostling going on to pose for the best picture.

Diepsloot Combined School. A rather desolate place on a
chilly winter morning, but a cheery place nonetheless

Our “studio” in between two buildings

Kids patiently waiting for their photo shoot

Become a Help Portrait volunteer (you will find more information at the end of this post). If it’s not for you, no harm done. You’ll have had an interesting day to look back on. But perhaps you will find your calling. It will certainly make you into a better photographer, at the very least.

If you’re not really a photographer, don’t worry. If you have a decent camera, just tag along with someone who’s done it before and you’ll soon learn. I certainly learned a lot about photography in four long hours a few weeks ago, when I went to a photo shoot at Diepsloot Combined School organized by my friend Karen.  I learned to shoot several pictures of each person in case the one you think is perfect has some fatal flaw. I learned how to get the kids to relax and then capture the right moment. I learned to make sure to check the lens is on autofocus before taking the group picture, not after.

Last minute dress adjustments

Fellow photographer TP showing his pictures. I loved how
that girl spontaneously went and hugged him.

This, perhaps, is my favorite picture of the day. It shows all
the jostling and  jeering that went on in my last group of grade
11 students who made a big show of not wanting to seem too
keen. They were quite a bit of work, actually, with some of the
boys perfecting their gangster poses and doing their utmost
not to give in to my entreaties to smile at the camera.

And I learned not to leave my camera bag open. Not because anything might disappear, far from it. I rather went home with more than I brought, namely in the form of large deposits of dust.

This couple begged me to have their picture taken.
And then they begged me to make sure I kept it,
which I found very touching. I’m sure they’d be
happy to know it made it online.

Fellow photographer Karen, who helped organize
the whole thing, hustling the kids along to the
right place

These two goofballs would not relent until I took
their picture in between sessions

Group pictures with friends were quite the rage, which I also
found very endearing

I hesitated a bit before writing this post. The idea, you see, is to go out and take people’s pictures for the one and only purpose of then printing them and handing them back. Not to use them in any other way. Especially not selling them, of course, but even writing a blog post is a bit of a gray area in my mind. I discussed this with other Help Portrait volunteers, and the consensus was that while we should absolutely not post any of the actual portraits we’ve taken, writing about the project and showing some of the pictures documenting the exercise is actually beneficial, in that it promotes the idea and hopefully gets more people involved.

It’s as if the dog was posing for his own portrait, seeing that
all the kids had gotten theirs (this picture is also from the
Kliptown Youth Centre photo shoot. The portraits for the
Diepsloot shoot have not been handed out yet)

To find out more about Help Portrait here in South Africa, visit Or like Ubuntu Help Portrait on Facebook. Get involved right away and participate in the Happy Birthday Madiba event in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday coming up soon. Or register to participate in the next big shoot on December 8. Or read fellow-blogger Karen’s post about the same photo shoot I described here (with the missing pictures of myself:-). 

Help Portrait is a world-wide organization, so it can be something for you even if you’re not in South Africa. To find a local group of volunteers wherever you are, visit
Still not convinced? Watch this video to find out more about Help Portrait and why it is such a cool thing to participate in: