Giving back, one photo at a time

It’s hard to think about an instance in which someone shouts, “Take our picture,” and not a single person has a digital, film or at least a cell phone camera to record the memory.

It’s hard to imagine bare walls at home with little to no record of family moments or personal achievements hanging on the walls or sitting in frames on a dresser.

However, for many Canadian families, especially for those with a tight budget and medical concerns such as mental illness, this is their reality. But on Friday Sept.16, Wilfrid Laurier PhD student Matt Symes and four other WLU volunteer photographers went to the Kitchener-Waterloo Mental Health Centre to take portraits of people from the centre who are coping with mental illness.

One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness and according to Symes, “One person commits suicide every two hours in Canada and there were 52 recorded suicides in Waterloo this past year.” He continued to explain about a community organization called Help-Portrait.

Founded by celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart, Help-Portrait is a community of photographers coming together across the world to use their photography skills to give back to their local community.

“I heard about this and decided to get in contact with them for the photo shoot,” Symes said.

“It ended up being kind of hard to organize, you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to give something away,” he laughed in discussing the challenge he had last year in trying to find a willing organization. Symes explained that working now with Self-Help Alliance has been a far better experience.

The mission behind Help-Portrait is a simple one. Photographers grab their cameras, take some pictures of people in need, then deliver the pictures when they’re ready. As their website states, “It really is that easy.”

“It was a really interesting experience,” said volunteer photographer and third-year WLU student Stephanie Truong. “I got to meet a lot of innovative people and share and hear stories. For sure, I would do it again.”

Allan Strong, working with the Self-Help Alliance (they can be found at said, “It was a unique and different experience. It really showed the value of peer support and the encouragement we give to other people.”

“We take things like family portraits for granted,” Strong said. “From the smiles I saw that day, the photos meant so much to them.”

Symes seconded this when he said, “we made quite a few people smile that day, that’s for sure.”

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected since its original publishing date.