What would you save out of your burning house? A lot of people would say, 'their photo albums.' Family photos are some of the most important keepsakes people hold dear. For people who are homeless, photos of family and friends are very rare, and all the more precious.
While looking through photos of her children one day, Aloma Calacine realized "how grateful I was that I had them, and it just occurred to me that other people might not even have a picture of themselves with their children."
Calacine began the Free Photo Project in November 2008 and explains that it "provides free portraits for the homeless and low-income, people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to have a portrait."
She was going through a transition in her life and had no resources to start a large project so she was unsure of how she would be able to help. She was determined to do so, however, and, after calling a local shelter, she "went and did ... snapshots of people with families and kids."
Calacine was initially uncertain about how her proposal would be taken but on that first day, she realized that the shelters and families staying there did not care that she "didn't have a fancy camera or anything, [she] just had a little point and shoot camera."
She then went to get the photos printed out and gave the prints to the families for free. From there, the project grew as she took more photos and took on volunteers to help out at the shoots she now organizes.
Now, the Free Photo Project has events in Portland and Eugene, and takes between 150 and 500 portraits of people and their families each time.
Although Calacine now has fancier equipment, including backdrops, lights, and portable photo printers, "that's not how it started," she says, "and it still meant just as much to people."
The process is very simple. If someone wants their photo taken, they simply need to sign up, fill out a photo release, and wait until their assigned photographer is free to take their photo.
As soon as the photographers are free, the families or individuals are guided through the process and the photographer takes several photos, from which the subject can pick their favorite.
The photo is then printed straight away from one of the portable photo printers. "We usually print two copies per person or per couple," says Calacine. "A lot of people say that they want to send one to somebody so we also provide stamps and envelopes when we can."
Calacine ensures that the process not only results in a quality portrait but that it remains fun for the participants. To make sure this happens, she relies heavily on the help of her volunteers to make sure the families aren't waiting too long.
"The printing takes a while, getting the right shot can take a while, and then it's really important that we have enough time to interact and give that person your full attention ... and help them get a good picture."
At the Free Photo Project event in Eugene, the excitement around the 'photo booth' is obvious as people line up around the table. Although everyone seems somewhat apprehensive at having their photo taken, as soon as they break into that first smile, they relax and have a great time.
After having his photo taken with his son, Larry Baros says that "it's just me and my son and other than my cell phone taking pictures, I've never had a picture of just me and him together. It's great."
The long-term goal for Calacine is to register the Free Photo Project as a non-profit so that she can accept donations and ensure the project continues for as long as possible. Until then, however, she will keep doing what she does, and encourages others to do the same.
Calacine explains that the idea was born "at a time when I felt I had the least to give" but she pursued it and now makes a difference in thousands of lives. "To me it's like a message... we all have something to give and find your unique gift to the world and don't wait until you have money."
She makes it look easy, saying that "I just liked photography and I just had this idea." She insists that "that's also the message that I want to get out there too is that you don't have to be a professional photographer, you just go take your camera and do it and people will love it."