The Project

Help Portrait in El Paso

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At the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, there are various levels of shelters. One is called the Transitional Living Center. The idea is that the residents are in a transition in their lives, moving from one phase of their life to another. Most simply are having a spate of bad luck, having lost their job, or their home, or even their family. Some had a lapse in judgement that went tragically bad. Some are living on the street because their life before was even more destructive than is living on the street. Whatever the situation, the Opportunity Center and the satellite TLCs give the residents a place to pause and live their life with at least a roof over their head, transitional as it may be.

In an effort to support that transition, Luke Lucas, a counselor at the Opportunity Center on Myrtle Street, arranges the Help Portrait Project. He arranges for students and instructors from Tri-State Beauty College to come and give make-overs for the ladies and haircuts for the men. He also arranges for professional photographers to take their portraits. The best photos are then printed out and donated to the residents.

Lucas says that the idea of Help Portrait came from a friend who had seen the project done in other cities. Between themselves and a photographer friend, they were able to throw an event in 2010. Those friends eventually moved out of town, but Lucas brought other friends who happened to be photographers themselves. Patrick Clifford, a local artist, sculptor and painter, has documented the events through video. Local wedding photographer Ricky J. Carrasco, Juarez commercial photographer Sergio Ramirez, and Timo Schwegmann, photographer for the German Air Defense Center, were all brought in to shoot the portraits for about 200 shelter residents this year. "We're incredibly lucky to get such an international and experienced group of photographers for our residents!" said Lucas.

When asked what impact this event has on the residents, Lucas stated that "My residents will be talking about this for the rest of the year. They'll pull out the pictures and remember the day and ask me 'Hey, didn't I look good that day?' I remember a lady who had been going through some tough times. When Timo finished taking her photos, she got up crying. The idea that all these people were talking to her, making her feel special, if for only a few minutes, was overwhelming."

Ricky Carrasco does mostly wedding photography (, but jumped at the chance to be part of the project. "I have a line of people from every demographic waiting to pose for me. It gives me a chance to practice many techniques; posing, lighting, lens choice. These clients are no different than any other. My job is to show them off to themselves in the best possible light. The residents here are as proud as anybody else, but with humility tempered by their circumstances."

Timo Schwegmann photographs soldiers and military equipment as part of his job on base, but this event allows him to give back to the community. "Many of these people have lost everything and this is something that I know I can do for them. My boy saw a picture that Rick took of little girl, and I explained that she didn't have a home. He said 'let's give her our house!' We can't do that, but it's good to know that I can give them some happiness with something I know how to do."

Sergio Ramirez, ( the newest in the group, shoots products and models for various local publications. "Honestly, I came in nervous, not knowing what to expect. I left happy with a whole different perspective on what I can contribute to the community. We had a Santa that posed with a little girl, and all she asked for was candy, that's it. It made me think about my kids and how thankful I am for what I actually do have."

Patrick Clifford ( will produce a video on the event for the shelter to use. "I loved that the personalities of the residents come out while being photographed. They almost sparkled! I saw these two little old ladies who sat and just watched everybody else. They looked like they were having the time of their lives, laughing and talking with everybody. I think events like this is the best use of photography that I've seen."

The slogan of Help Portrait is "A picture is worth". In Lucas' words, "These residents know what it is to be kicked around, or abused or ignored. At least for this one moment, they can feel special. They can feel good about themselves. It reminds them that they are special individuals."

(I wrote this story for my boss's newspaper on the condition that I not "author" it. Which is why I appear in this story in the 3rd person.)

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