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'This Is Our First Family Photo'

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          "People underestimate the power of a picture, because most of us take it for granted," Renee Purcell told me Saturday morning at Cuidando Los Niños in Albuquerque, amid an organized chaos of makeup stations, dressing rooms, lights, cameras and a whole lot of action.
        A family portrait holds a power that goes beyond a piece of glossy paper in a frame. We use them to count the years, the missing teeth, the additions and subtractions. They say: This is us, together and looking our best.
        When you ask people what they would save if their house were on fire, most everyone will say their family photos.
        Family pictures, especially dressed-up professional portraits hanging on the wall in a frame, are only one of the many things that people living in homeless shelters, domestic violence refuges, hotels and in their cars do without. Finding food and safety is a priority; a professional photograph is an unthinkable luxury.
        On Saturday, a team of 10 volunteer photographers provided that luxury at Cuidando Los Niños, offering free photo shoots to dislocated and homeless families.
        Carmen Hawthorne was wrangling her 2-year-old twin sons and 3-year-old daughter while trying to keep their hair combed, as she got ready for her close-up.
        Hawthorne had just left a domestic violence shelter. With money made tending the restrooms at the State Fair, she had finally saved enough for a down payment and moved into an apartment. The rent is $495 a month, and her TANF benefit, while she looks for a job, is $537. That leaves $42 a month for extras.
        "We don't have any pictures at all," she said, explaining to me that a trip to Sears or Kim Jew isn't anything you'd think of spending money on when you're struggling to feed your kids and buy diapers.
        After Hawthorne and the kids — Joseph, Francisco and Voida — had been dressed up in new donated outfits, Journal staff photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis set about fixing that. He set them up under the lights and started to make memories as Hawthorne beamed.
        "We can actually have a family photo on the wall," she said. "To show our family unity."
        Saturday's event at Cuidando Los Niños, which provides day care for homeless children, was part of the global Help-Portrait project. Journal staff photographer Morgan Petroski organized the Albuquerque event after reading about Help-Portrait last year.
        "It's a worldwide movement for photographers to give back during the holiday season," Petroski told me. She found an agency to help and put out the word for volunteers. Ten local photographers signed on, including four from the Journal.
        Saturday's photo fest provided hair and makeup assistance, as well as fresh outfits for the families who wanted them. Each family will receive a framed 5-by-7 print, the printing donated by local landscape photographer Tom Spross.
        As a couple dozen families, all clients of Cuidando Los Niños, streamed in, Seiya Bowen, a photography student at the University of New Mexico, set up Tiffanie Kidd and her three children against a backdrop while Pierre-Louis did his best to coax a smile from her 2-year-old, Terence.
        Kidd told me she has some family pictures, but they're locked up in storage while she, Terence, infant Mecca and 14-year-old Neka live at the Barrett House shelter. With her husband in jail, no job and a new baby, they found themselves homeless.
        "This is our first portrait with everybody in the family, except my husband," she said. And it was the first photo ever taken of Mecca, who is 4 months old.
        Purcell, Cuidando's program director, told me that people often confuse homeless children with neglected children. The kids and moms smiling into the cameras Saturday were happy, shiny, intact families. The only things missing from the pictures were reminders of the hardships that had brought them here.
        Down a hallway, photographer Stefan Chakerian was helping Nicole Voss choose which print she would like from a number of poses.
        Voss, 24, picked one with her 3-year-old son, Emilio, on one knee and 9-month-old daughter, Alyanna, on the other. The family has been living at UNM's Casita de Milagros while Voss kicks her addiction to heroin, and the photo showed a beautiful, healthy threesome — testimony to her progress.
        "This is our first family photo," Voss told me.
        It's something she'll keep to mark an important point in her young family's history. She will complete her inpatient therapy soon and is getting help setting up an apartment and is enrolled at CNM starting in January.
        The picture will hang on the wall of a new apartment.
        "They can look at it and remember our first Christmas," she said, "the three of us, together as a family."
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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