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Holiday portaits give homeless people a different view of their lives

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Photographs from prior years of the Portrait Project hang in the hall of Saint Andre Bessette Church, where volunteer photographer Frank Woodbery sets up his next shot.There was the woman who wore her entire wardrobe at once and insisted on being photographed as she peeled off each layer.

“She had a parka, another coat, seven layers of clothing ... she kept going until she got to her T-shirt and jeans,” says Jason Kaplan, the photographer who captured the unique portrait series. “She was kind of a character, a little eccentric.”

Kaplan, 43, a freelance photographer who lives in St. Johns, has met many more characters in his volunteer work, which he calls the Portrait Project.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portraits from the Portrait Project await people who sat for the photos this holiday season.Every holiday season since 2007, about 120 to 150 homeless or low-income people who receive day services at the downtown Saint André Bessette Catholic Church sign up for a sitting in the church’s makeshift portrait studio, where Kaplan and two other local photographers take volunteer shifts taking photos.

Their sessions run back-to-back for four days in early December. Two weeks later, the homeless and low-income people return and pick up their two free 5-by-7 prints to keep or give away.

There was excitement in the air Monday morning as Andrew Noethe, director of programs at the church, announced that the photos would be distributed that day.

Several people rushed to a small table in the back of the room to claim their photos, many carrying their mugs of hot coffee and bowls of chicken noodle soup.

The church, at West Burnside and Sixth Avenue, is open to homeless people for just two hours each morning, after which people either stand outside, attend a nearby Mass or find another shelter.

The 100 or so folks at Saint André Bessette on Monday morning sat around tables with their soup and individually wrapped sandwiches, for some the only meal they’d eat that day.

One man played guitar, others lounged with a newspaper, another man rested his head on the table.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Last year's portraits flicker on a screen inside the Saint Andre Bessette Church warming shelter, where Shawnee Clark hugs her boyfriend, Fletcher Hampton, after having her portrait taken. She plans to give the print to Hampton as a Christmas gift.They sat with their bikes, sleeping rolls, backpacks and shopping bags, layers of coats and hats to stave off the chill. Many carried empty bottles and cans to recycle for cash.

Most were talkative and in good cheer; after one woman let out an incomprehensible holler in the hallway, a man inside lightened the air: “Give her more coffee!”

Just temporary

Jewell Ramirez was one of the folks who made a beeline for the photo table. The middle-aged woman, who’s been homeless since 2010, when a medical condition caused her to lose her job, hadn’t been at the church when the photos were being taken, but wished she was.

“I’d give them to my family,” Ramirez says.

Instead, she carefully selected four of the Christmas cards on the rack nearby.

“I like the religious ones, not the ones that say ‘Happy holidays,’ “ she says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Willy Scruggs holds his portrait, which he plans to send to his sister. Some choose to give the photos as gifts; others plan to hold on to them as keepsakes.The church was handing out the cards to anyone who wanted them, as a way for people to give their portraits as gifts. The church also provides postage for the cards.

Many, however, want to keep their portrait for posterity.

“This is just temporary,” Ramirez says about her condition.

She’s awaiting an ear surgery in January that will allow her to hear normally for the first time in her life, she says. After the surgery, Ramirez expects to be able to resume work as a medical interpreter. Until then, she’ll spend her days and nights floating between warming centers downtown.

A sense of stability

Noethe, the church program director, is thrilled with the response to the portrait project.

“Originally, it was just an idea for people to both receive and give a gift for Christmas,” he says.

After a year, it became evident it was more meaningful than anyone could’ve imagined.

“When they received the portraits, the fact that people were viewing themselves literally through a new lens was really empowering for people, to see themselves as beautiful,” he says.

It also offered a chance to reconnect with friends and family they may lost touch with for years.

by: PORTLAND TRIBUNE: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Jeremy Marks, right, on staff at Saint Andre Bessette Church, laughs after receiving a copy of Gary Bazler's portrait with him, left, on Monday.“It was really a kind of a healing experience,” he says. “It’s been something people look forward to each year.”

Kaplan has seen some of the folks return year after year, but others don’t make it, or aren’t in the best health.

“A couple people who came in very ill died shortly after,” Kaplan recalls. “One man had a stroke; seems like it was just trying to capture a glimmer of expression.”

There’s one thing that isn’t different from any other studio shoot, Kaplan says: The main challenge is trying to get them comfortable in front of the camera.

“I try to get people just for a second forget they’re being photographed; have their mind someplace else,” he says.

He’ll ask about their friends and families, what they plan to do for the holidays, or how they’ll use their photos.

“A lot of them do want to visit family, trying to get enough money together for a bus ticket to see family ... a lot of people say the pictures are just for me,” he says.

Kaplan says the project is personally gratifying, but he does it because he hopes it helps the clients. He thinks it does. In the 1990s, he used to work at a temporary homeless shelter in Northwest Portland before it transformed into the Pearl District; before that he managed a group home in Missoula, Mont.

“What most people want is a sense of security,” he says. “To know they have a place to sleep at night; to have some sort of stability in their life.”

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