Mike is almost ready for his.
He has a collared, pinstripe shirt and a nice pair of pants and an appropriately somber expression. Or maybe a smile would be better. He’s not sure.
It’s been a decade since a camera was pointed his way – in high school, before he lost himself to drinking and drugs, before he realized, as he says: “I don’t know how to live life on life’s terms.”
Now he lives at Hope Haven, a center that gives the homeless and addicted a place to live and relearn how to live. Mike has been here 60 days, and already he has improved, and on this Sunday afternoon in November, he’s about to get tangible evidence of that progress.
Three years ago, Kathy Pickard’s church, Covenant Presbyterian, put together a day in which members fanned out across Charlotte to perform service projects. A church staffer suggested that Pickard, a professional photographer, might use her gifts for the event. Who among us might need a picture the most?
Now, one Sunday each year, Pickard sets up an impromptu studio at Hope Haven’s activities center, and residents line up for a professional portrait, free of charge. They wear sweatsuits and dresses, jeans and ties. Some are new residents, just beginning the climb out of their abyss. Some are on the back end of their two-year stay, ready to apply their counseling and life training.
For each, the pictures are a marker. “It lets them see themselves,” says Pickard, “and see what they’ve become.”
But, she knows, the portraits represent something else, too. Pictures are what you have done when you’re a regular person, with a regular life.
“Almost 20 years,” says Cindy, now 47, when asked how long it’s been since she had a picture taken. It was with her daughter, who was just a baby, and the man who was then her husband.
“I’m not really sure,” says Edward, now 43, when asked the same question. But he knows he’s had just one, and he remembers what it was for. “My prison ID,” he says.
“Never,” says George, who is 60. Never had a photo done? “No,” he says. “It just never was something I got to do.”
But now he is in a blue suit and tie, as sharply dressed as anyone on this day. “You’re looking good,” Pickard tells him, then motions: Chin down. Hands on legs. “There you go,” she says, and George smiles through the click.
There will be 80 taken on this day, so many that Pickard doesn’t have much time to hear the stories behind the faces she choreographs. Instead, those stories come in small glimpses, quick as a shutter. One man tells her his picture will be a reminder that he’s still here – as in still alive.
Others ask if they can peek at their photo on the back of her camera. “I like that,” says one, surprised. “That’s right,” says another, nodding.
Some will hang these portraits in their apartments as a reminder of how far they’ve come since their lives washed up to Hope Haven’s doors. Most will order extra photos for family.
“I’ll give them to my sisters,” says George, of the picture that will be his first. “They knew me at the lowest.”
“My sister in Virginia,” says Edward, of his first picture since prison. “She’s going to be like, ‘Whoa, look at my brother.’”
“My little girl,” says Mike, who decides on a cautious smile to go with his collared, pinstripe shirt. Mike says he’ll also send copies to his family, some of whom last saw him more than two months ago, when he came to Hope Haven. “I looked like death,” he says.
What will they see now?
Improvement, he says.
And: “That I’m really trying.”
The camera clicks behind him. Another picture, against a simple brown backdrop on a Sunday afternoon. The gift of progress – and the opportunity to see it.
Mike glances over, then back at the question.
They’ll see, he says, “a better me.”