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Global free portrait day a day of revelations for volunteers, photographers and their subjects

Ngo Van Lau, a lottery ticket seller, holds up his two free photos

Ngo Van Lau, a lottery ticket seller who has two arms that are shriveled stubs barely a foot long with two fingers each, was smiling as he hurried out of the Hoa Binh Primary School near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City.

In his "hand" were two reasons for his happiness.

Lau had just got his photograph taken at "Help Portrait," part of a global event that has photographers volunteer to take pictures, develop them and provide them free to needy people.

It was not the first time that Lau had registered for a free photo from "Help Portrait."

Explaining his hurry, he said: "I still have a lot of lottery tickets to sell because I have been waiting for the photos for hours. But I am happy, since they gave me two photos instead of only one, as they did last year.

"Last year, I took the photos home and my children said I am their handsome father. Do I look good?" Lau asked, still smiling as he propped up a photograph on his chest with his shriveled arm.

He did look great.

Lau said that his wife was too busy to take his children out for a family photo.

"My family has not had a family photo taken so far. Maybe we will wait for next year." 

Lau had another reason to attend the event this year.

"It could be a great day with some luck. Last year, I was able to sell many lottery tickets on the free portrait day," he told Vietweek.

Last Saturday, December 8, was the third year that the "Help Portrait" event was being held in Vietnam.

The Hoa Binh Primary School was crowded with young people in red T-shirts, the uniform for volunteers, and photographers.
This year, the event was taken to another level, compared to the previous two years.

At the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital in Binh Thanh District, "Help Portrait" volunteers and photographers brought some Christmas Eve cheer in the morning. Volunteers dressed up as Santa Claus presented gifts to the children fighting cancer.

"It is the first time that we have come to the hospital to take photos of the young patients. Many of our members were moved to tears, although what we saw were the cutest smiles" said Huyen Phuong, a representative of the event organizers.

A total of 732 photographers and volunteers took 4,462 photographs in six cities and towns - Hanoi in the North, Ho Chi Minh City and Bien Hoa in the South, Hue and Da Nang in the central region and Da Lat in the Central Highlands.

But the event was not about numbers, said Thien Binh, a photographer.

"The 50 photos that my team took at the HCMC Oncology Hospital were not all good shots. But the greatest thing that we got is the laughter, some mingled with tears of children who were afraid of Santa Claus."

Binh revealed that a member of her group was also a cancer patient.

"But now, after meeting these young children, he told me that his own life-threatening situation seemed less threatening."

Nguyen Thanh Hai, one of the founders of Help Portrait Vietnam, said that the event was not only a day for the young photographers to practice their skills, but also one that gave them a chance to be aware of the tough situations people were in.

"Many of the volunteers told me that the stories of those strangers have helped them understand more about their responsibility to the family and society in the most practical way possible," he said.

Hai also said that the group of photographers who are in charge of taking photos at the Children's Hospital No. 2 broke the event's rule, which only offers 1 or 2 photos to each subject.

"They took 11 photos for a little cancer patient because her family requested "˜a small gift for her last days.'"

Tran Quoc Tuan, 25, a volunteer in the event, told Vietweek that many city dwellers were astonished and even dubious when they are asked if they would like their photographs taken for free.

Tuan said that it was the first time that he was taking part in the event. He regretted that his friends were "too busy to accompany me."

Tuan revealed that he was a soldier at the Truong Sa (Spratly Archipelago) two years ago.

"The youth who joined the army with me, and I myself, we never had a photo taken of ourselves with our uniforms on the island. I wish this event was held there years ago. Or maybe they could go in the coming years."

The event revealed to participants that even in the age of ubiquitous digital cameras and phones, there are many, many people for whom having a picture taken is thrilling, important event.

"This is the first time that I have posed to have a photo taken," Nguyen Van Suong, a little boy at a welfare center in Hue told the Tuoi Tre newspaper.  

Seventy photographers volunteered for the event in the central city, where it was making its debut.

Phan Minh Tri, a volunteer, said he could see how the event had helped the children in the city's welfare centers.

"The photos give them a beautiful moment. They make them more confident and I hope the event will become an annual activity in my hometown," Tri told Tuoi Tre.

Tuan was also impressed with the event's impact. He said that saving only one day for the event is not enough.

"I have realized how easy it is to make someone smile and to smile back. This event can be hosted any time, anywhere for those who really need it. I think maybe next year we could ask the subjects to write their stories on the photos. It would be a great memoir for everyone."

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