Santa Clara University


Portrait Day

Worth more than 1,000 words
A photo class turned outreach program is a lesson in lens, light, ethics, and service

By Karen Crocker Snell and Karyne Levy

For people struggling to scrape together enough money to afford a place to live, posing for family portraits can seem like a luxury. But at a homeless shelter in San Jose, residents had the opportunity this fall to gather in front of the camera lens and flash their best smiles.

On the other side of the camera were students from a Santa Clara University photo class—who had been learning not only about lighting and shutter speeds but also about ethics and service, and the power of images to tug on society's conscience.

Open their hearts

For one day in November, students from Renee Billingslea's Exploring Society through Photography class set up a portrait studio at Community Homeless Alliance Ministry (CHAM) in downtown San Jose. For many of the shelter residents, this was the first time they had ever had a professional quality portrait taken of themselves and their families. "The free portrait day allowed students an opportunity to apply ethics, use their photography skills, as well as create gifts for the families,” said Billingslea. “The success of this class is due to the students’ generosity, willingness to open their hearts, and to stay flexible.”

On Dec. 4 the students made a special presentation of the finished portraits. They prepared dinner for all shelter residents and gave those who participated in the portrait day photo albums holding their photos. The photo albums were donated by a community member who read about the project in the San Jose Mercury News.

The class and the portrait day project gained a great deal of positive media attention. Just before Thanksgiving, the national spotlight shone on the project: The Christian Science Monitor featured a story about the students' work and how it is an example of service learning on college campus. And on Nov. 27, CBS 5 covered a story about the students' efforts, as well.

From January through the end of the exhibit on March 4, 30 portraits were on display at the de Saisset Museum in conjunction with an exhibition by Sixth Street Photography Workshop, featuring images of the homeless community in San Francisco. The project was made possible by a Center for Multicultural Learning grant and is supported by the de Saisset Museum and the art and art history departments.

Building community

“My decision to work at Santa Clara University was greatly influenced by the mission of the University and its interest in community building, which includes community-based learning,” said Billingslea. “I knew at some point I wanted to create a course that would include volunteering or connecting with our community.” Her photography course did exactly that.

Karen Kienzle, curator at the de Saisset, worked with Billingslea to put together an exhibition of student work that complemented an exhibit of photographs by Sixth Street. “The exhibition—and the work of this important San Francisco-based organization—highlights the power of art to create real benefits in the community,” Kienzle said. “The local student component does the same, but also reminds us that homelessness is all around us, even in our very backyard.”

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