Industry News

The Power of Giving Back with Your Portrait Photography

January 19, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

Photo © Janae Dawson/

Magic Hour offers free photos and prints to cancer patients through a nationwide network of contributing photolanthropists.

During a two-day children’s shoot, photographer Priscilla Gragg raises money to buy toys for those less fortunate. Photo © Priscilla Gragg

The Portrait Project

Priscilla Gragg

While Priscilla Gragg began The Portrait Project a couple years ago, its origin dates back to her childhood in Brazil. “When I was young, my dad would buy toys for less fortunate children and we would drive down to poorer towns during the holidays to deliver those gifts,” she recalls. “I remember vividly when my dad opened the trunk of the car and the kids saw those toys.”

Now working in the San Francisco Bay area, Gragg followed her father and grandfather in pursuing a photographic career, but she knew she wanted to keep the other family legacy—of local generosity—alive. “I kept thinking, How can I give back to the community? How can I be a good
example for my children?”

Her answer: The Portrait Project.

“As a commercial photographer, I get a lot of requests from moms who want images of their children—either for portfolios or just family portraits,” Gragg says. In 2016, she decided to open her commercial studio to children for a two-day photo shoot. Proceeds from the session would be used to buy toys at a local store and then donated to a local charity. The sessions themselves are full-on professional shoots, Gragg says, with hair and makeup, professional wardrobes and craft service.

When we spoke, Gragg had just finished the second annual shoot—a big success, she reports: “We earned enough to buy 200 toys for children.” Gragg is already thinking ahead to next year. “I’d like to invite local vendors in,” she says, so they can contribute their own proceeds to the toy fund.

The Magic Hour

Alysa and Alan Darmody

Photographers Alysa and Alan Darmody founded Magic Hour after they offered a free photo session to a church member who was terminally ill. Inspired, they began to offer free photo shoots to cancer patients and those in remission, providing them with free digital copies and 5 x 7 prints in a custom box.

The Darmodys grew their charitable organization into a national network of photographers offering free portrait services for cancer patients, but when faced with their own family illness, the Darmodys realized they could no longer sustain the enterprise. Enter Caitlin and Jeffrey Lazo, the co-founders of ProDPI.

When the Lazos learned of the Darmodys’ plight, they offered to take over Magic Hour. ProDPI was already fulfilling print orders for the organization, so the Lazos were very familiar with the work. “I remember looking over the orders and crying at my desk,” Caitlin tells us. “It’s our belief that images are incredibly important to a family and a family history.”

Yet running a business and a growing charitable organization wasn’t an easy balance, so in 2016, the Lazos made a momentous decision: they sold ProDPI to White House Custom Colour to focus exclusively on Magic Hour.

Since then, Caitlin reports they have more than doubled the network of photographers offering services to families struggling with cancer. There are now 1,200 shooters across the country and they are always looking for more volunteers.

Magic Hour sessions can be rewarding for a photographer, but also emotionally draining. “We’ve had sessions where the subject has died that afternoon,” Caitlin says. But for the families, they offer a chance to memorialize a loved one, and they enrich the photographers who donate their time and talents.

Every image they make plays a powerful role in someone’s life, Caitlin says. “They can be used at a funeral or wedding, or as a gift to help someone heal. We lose sight of that when we are in the day to day of running a business or when we’re caught up with how superficial people can be in front of the camera, but our recipients love and cherish these images, and it really gives us a sense of fulfillment.”

Storytelling is central to the House of Hopes mission; those undergoing similar stress know they’re not alone. Photo © Heathyr Harkless, House of Hopes

House of Hopes

Heathyr Harkless

Having lost her father and sister to cancer, Heathyr Harkless, the founder of House of Hopes Photography, has witnessed first-hand the painful and personal battles waged against cancer.

A self-taught photographer, Harkless began her foray into photographic philanthropy in 2012 while shooting portraits to raise money to adopt a child. Along the way, she would often donate her photographic talents to others in need. These requests were usually for the most sensitive photos, such as premature babies in the NICU and families with a loved one in hospice.

After securing the funds for the adoption, Harkless realized she could leverage her “passion for people” and her talent for photography for the greater good.

Through her nonprofit, Harkless and a national network of over 100 photographers will offer free “gifted sessions” for a variety of highly sensitive occasions, including “bundled blessings,” which focus on the loss of an infant child, or “little prizefighters,” which center on children fighting life-threatening illnesses. “People ask, ‘Why would someone want these memories?’” Harkless says. “If you survive, these photos can be a source of strength. If someone doesn’t make it, sometimes those images are all a family has.”

Gifted sessions aren’t restricted to the most solemn moments—soldier homecomings and adoptions are also featured. Participants in House of Hopes’ gifted sessions receive the digital files and a print release. Harkless will often work with partners to include prints and photo books for these sessions as well. The images and stories are then shared on House of Hopes’ Facebook page, which often catalyzes local media attention and further aid and support from the community.

Wes Moore served as an Army infantry officer from 1998 to 2009, during which time he was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Photo © Stacy Pearsall

Veterans Portrait Project

Stacy Pearsall

For Iraq war veteran and photojournalist Stacy Pearsall, photography was a means of both recovery and service. She conceived of the Veterans Portrait Project while in a VA hospital recovering from her battle wounds. Surrounded by fellow veterans away from the front lines, Pearsall became determined to use photography, she says, “as an extension of my service.”

In 2008, she set out to photograph veterans from every state and province that the Department of Defense recruits. Each vet gets a free portrait session and high-res files; those vets who aren’t on email receive a print. Beyond their images, Pearsall also records their stories, which she shares on social media and in gallery shows.

“I’m a journalist at heart and I take the time to get to know the veterans,” she says. “I think my own time in the military helps me empathize and relate.”

Pearsall sustains the project through private donations and funding from USAA, a financial services firm that serves the veteran community. The sessions are not only a way to memorialize and honor veterans for their service, but they have proven to be emotionally cathartic as well. Pearsall says she once asked a veteran what he did during the Vietnam War. As he answered, she could see tears streaming down his wife’s face. “His job was to identify the people who were killed,” Pearsall recalls. “But he had never told anyone that—not even his wife.”

How to Help

Do something you’re passionate about. Without a passion for the mission you’ve embarked on, our sources say, you’ll burn out. Remember, you’re not getting paid and you’re often confronted with emotionally challenging scenarios. If you don’t really love it, you’re likely to leave it.

Find others who feel the same. It can be overwhelming to go it alone, so it’s always best to find others to help by lending their time and talents to your efforts. Magic Hour and House of Hopes have both grown by networking with other photographers who align with their mission. Industry partners are also important, either for fundraising or promotion.

Consult your accountant. When the Lazos took over Magic Hour, they found it was “cleaner” to simply shut down the original organization and form a new 503c (a tax-exempt nonprofit). Depending on the nature of the charitable work you want to do, you may be entitled to tax benefits.

Join in on the ground level. If you don’t want to start your own effort from scratch, both House of Hopes and Magic Hour are looking for professional photographers across the country. In both cases, you’ll be vetted before joining the network.

Related: Jeremy Cowart on the Global Power of Photography

Supporting the Work of Beautiful Together