Portrait Project Looks at Homelessness, Hope, and Gratitude

By Rob Finkel

At LexJet, many  customers tell us about how they are using their photography and printing skills to support worthy causes in their communities.  Jim Spelman of Jim Spelman Studios recently told me about the Hope in Focus  project that he is working on to support Carpenter’s Place, an agency that serves the chronically homeless in his hometown of Rockford, IL. 

SpelmanIMG_7950 emailBetween now and November, Spelman will capture at least 1,000 portraits and stories from individuals from throughout the Rockford community. One of the goals is to “shatter stereotypes about the homeless” and inspire us all to feel more grateful for the things we have, instead of worrying about what we don’t have.  The portraits and stories are being gathered along with videotaped interviews to produce a traveling exhibition that will help raise funds to support Carpenter’s Place.  

The mission of Carpenter’s Place is to provide tools for rebuilding lives. It is a safe daytime, drop-in center that aids chronically homeless people, many of whom suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, or learning and emotional disabilities. Instead of simply providing a meal or a bed for the night then sending the person back to the streets, Carpenter’s Place helps each “guest” develop and implement a comprehensive Life Recovery Plan.  Homeless visitors to  Carpenter’s Place can store their personal belongings, shower, make phone calls, receive, and wash their clothes. When they are ready to move into more stable housing, donated furniture is made available to them.  

Spelman has already shot some images of the people who come to Carpenter’s Place for help. But he is also shooting portraits of any Rockford-area resident who will answer four basic questions:

1.            What does Home mean to you?

2.            What are you grateful for?

3.            What brings you hope?

4.            Have you ever been homeless? If so, how long?

SpelmanIMG_7989 emailUltimately, the exhibition will be designed to make people think. It will not only convey some of the hardships of homelessness, but also the deep sense of gratitude people express when they receive everyday items that most of us take for granted (such as a pair of pants or basic toiletries). Executive Director Kay Larrick has observed that “The people who have the least seem to have the most gratitude.”

The Hope in Focus project just got underway a few weeks ago. But Spelman is already finding that people who don’t think they’ve been homeless, actually have been homeless at some point in their lives, even if only for a few days. 

In his photography business, Spelman specializes in shooting highly stylized beauty and fashion images for magazines. He also shoots fantasy/glamour sessions for high-school seniors.

For the Hope in Focus project, Spelman isn’t doing any cosmetic retouching. The portraits are each very detailed and very real. “I think there is such beauty in everyone’s individuality,” says Spelman.  

Although some people are initially startled to see unretouched photos these days, most are intrigued and amazed.

In addition to the shots taken at the Carpenter’s Place facility, Spelman will be shooting portraits in his studio, at the Rock River Valley YMCA, and at various art festivals and events throughout the summer.

 He isn’t the only creative professional working on the project. Brian Anderson of Cain & Company is developing a logo and PR materials. Videographer Andrew Reynolds of uchoosetv.com is shooting videos of several of the interviews and architect Joseph Zimmer is building a special walk-through house in which many of the portraits will be displayed. The Carpenter’s Place also has graphic designs and public-relations people involved.

The exhibition will open with a special event planned Nov. 4 in Jim’s spacious new studios. Representatives of the local news media will be invited, as well as the people featured in the portraits and the extensive network of volunteers and community leaders who support Carpenter’s Place.

SpelmanIMG_7954 emailSpelman plans to print all of the portraits himself using LexJet Sunset Photo papers and Water-Resistant Satin Cloth on his Epson Stylus Pro 9800. He has only been printing in-house for about six months but feels confident he can handle it.  

“I used to send everything to a lab,” says Spelman. “Labs are great, and they definitely have their place, but I love being able to print my work myself. In addition to having ultimate control over the image quality, the printer gives me the capacity to be more creative.”

Everyone who sits for a portrait and contributes comments to the project will receive a digital copy of the photo. Or, they can order large framed or unframed prints of their portraits, with 25% of the proceeds being donated to Carpenter’s Place.

“Right now there’s a lot of energy behind the Hope in Focus project,” says Spelman. He’s not entirely sure what direction the project will take by the time the exhibition opens in November.  He also plans to use some of the portraits in a book project he’s been working on for several years.

But one thing he does know is that many beneficiaries of the agency’s services are grateful to be participating. As Spelman observes, “They want their voices heard, because for many of them  Carpenter’s Place has helped save their lives.”