Seoul Help Portrait 2009

On December 5th a quintet of intrepid photographers, friends and members of the Seoul Photo Club, braved the sleet and rain of a cold Seoul morning to do a good deed. Their task was to make portraits of 50 kids from the Hwasung Baby Home, an orphanage in the Wangshimni neighborhood. The goal was simple; lend a little help.

Help Portrait is a movement of photographers who are using their time, equipment and expertise to give back to those who are less fortunate during the holiday season. The purpose of the day isn’t to laude the singularity of giving but rather to transform this deed into something of the everyday, to make help synonymous with the ordinary.

For many of us, the making of the Christmas portrait was an annual holiday event, a day out for the whole family. Sure, some of us still grimace at the thought: ugly festive sweaters with reindeer chasing Santa up your neck and down into your socks; grandma screeching for softer light on her mole; mom delaying the shoot for three hours to powder her nose. And if you were the one who had to hold the Christmas ham you certainly contemplated jumping out the studio window, no matter what floor it was on. Yet as kooky as Christmas can be, these are the things we took for granted growing up. It’s easy to overlook the fact that thousands of people never had the same opportunity. And that’s what Help Portrait is all about; sharing experiences, giving where you can. Not to say that it’s easy. Not in the slightest.

The moment we walked through the doors at the orphanage we were engulfed. 100 tiny hands grabbing and poking and clamoring, tugging on hair, yanking camera straps, pulling light stands to the floor. Immediately we knew making these portraits was going to be a challenge; there was no structure, no flow to the day. I looked for a list of names and found a box of dirty diapers.

The people at the orphanage were glad to have us there, but clearly we were on our own when it came to logistics. It was, to put it mildly, chaos. Luckily, the five of us together make up one pretty decent portrait photographer. We have experience in fashion, studio, print and editorial work. But none of that prepares you for the madness of shooting children. Lots of them, stuffed full of sugar. “It was like herding cats trying to get everyone in place for the group picture,” Aaron Raisey (New Zealand), President of the SPC said.

We threw caution to the wind and tossed aside the elaborate set ups; no strobes, reflectors, light meters, umbrellas, soft boxes. Not a whole lot of posing, either; kids aren’t big on posing. Asking a kid to pose is like asking him to eat broccoli. He’s going to turn up his nose and cry. Then photographers are going to cry. The whole thing gets messy. Basically, we did away with all the plotted and planned shots in lieu of spontaneity and as much candid work as we could get in. We improvised. When you’ve got a carousel or a pair of bouncing toy ponies on site and any chance at distracting a child long enough to make a photo, you take it. You eschew the headshot of the crying kid in front of the Christmas tree and you make the environment work for you as much as you can. “Neither half of the operation had really thought through what was expected of the other half,” said Dylan Golby (Australia), the man who organized the event. “It got messy, but it was a great time.”

When the smoke and cloud of urine cleared the kids were left with a box full of framed portraits and the school a few things to decorate their new building with after the holidays. As photographers, other than the 5,000-odd shots we made, broken equipment and sore backs, we didn’t take away anything tangible. What we took was ephemeral, but no less poignant. We took the laughs and the memories and the smells and, most importantly, the experience. “I think I’ll always remember the smell of that place,” said Aaron Brown of Chicago. “It may not be the best memory, but it’s forever etched in my mind and sinuses. The laughs were non-stop, too.”

At the end of the day, I think that’s more than we expected or ever could have asked for from Help Portrait 2009.

For volunteer opportunities with Hwasung Baby Home contact Jeong Jin-Hee @ 010-7679-3596 or visit them on the web @

For more on the Seoul Photo Club @

For more on Help Portrait @


2 thoughts on “Seoul Help Portrait 2009

  1. Very nice, a bit heart wrenching when one thinks about it. Love the shot of the lone boy, looks middle aged already in his stance.

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