By Seth Daniel and Keiko Hiromi
Nathan Brown hadn’t received a proper portrait of himself for 20 or 30 years until this month during a free photo session at Project Place, and when presented with the portrait, the formerly homeless man said it was a shock to see what he now looked like with his life back on track.
There he was, looking sharp and different than he did when he was living on the streets not long ago. It was a pick-me-up he never expected.
“I put my photos on my Facebook page and got a lot of ‘Likes,’” he said. “I’ve never had a professional photo really. The last time was years ago, probably 20 or 30 years ago. It really gives me a chance to look at myself through someone else’s eyes. I appreciate it. It made me stop and think about how far I’ve come and where I’m going. It turned out to be an awesome experience.”
That experience was courtesy of a volunteer effort between award-winning photographer Vail Fucci and Project Place – a social service agency in the South End that helps formerly homeless people become re-acclimated to society and to land a job.
Fucci used to live in the South End and, at the time, was giving private photography lessons to the daughter of a Project Place employee. She came into photographer 10 years ago on Christmas when – seeing that her career in bioethics was dragging her down – her husband set up the legal documents for her own photo business. It had been a dream she had never chased, but with it being set up, she pursued it. With her career underway, she stumbled across Project Place in the neighborhood and was motivated to help in some way.
“To see what they do in action – it became the next thing I wanted to volunteer to do,” she said. “It’s an amazing organization doing amazing work. If I was going to volunteer for anything, I said it would be Project Place…I’ve been wanting to do this portrait photo project since 2012, but it was a matter of us being able to pull it together and getting the clients to agree. This was the first year we got it together and hopefully we’ll be doing it every year from now on.”
The project, called Help Portraits, is a worldwide program where professional photographers, make-up artists and hair stylists give a day of their time to create professional portraits of formerly homeless people transitioning to new jobs. It’s something that Fucci said she was quick to sign on to, and something she was proud to bring to Project Place.
“Some of the clients, they often say the only pictures they have had taken of them are mug shots,” said Fucci. “One lady told me she didn’t know that she could look like she did in the pictures. It is really transformative seeing it. It makes a difference to people to help them see themselves in a different light.”
She said other clients have told her that they didn’t know they could be that happy when sober.
“One man, who has been sober for a while now, told me he didn’t think he could smile like that without being high,” she said. “He was clean and sober and getting his life back on track and was happy at the same time. That was a great moment for him.”
At Project Place, on Dec. 3 and 4, Fucci acted as stylist, photographer and make-up artist. Several clients agreed to let her use her talents to take professional portraits of them. She has already delivered electronic copies of them, and many clients have used them for the holidays. Later, actual prints will be delivered to them as well.
Brown said he now works for Bay Cove Human Services, and he has been in his own housing for two months. He praised Project Place for getting him back on track, getting him back into the working world, and getting off the streets.
“I was homeless when I started the program at Project Place,” he said. “It gave me a purpose to get off the streets and a place to go to get out of the cold. They helped me to rebound and get back on my feet.”
It’s that kind of life change that Fucci said the camera often picks up – a change that clients many times aren’t used to seeing.
“When you’ve made real positive changes in your life, and are genuinely proud of that, the camera can see it,” said Fucci.