For Working-Class Chinese, 'Picture Day' Is A Rare Treat Volunteers in more than 20 countries this weekend shot free, studio-quality portraits of more than 16,000 people who otherwise couldn't have afforded them. Getting people in one Shanghai neighborhood to smile wasn't easy. Some had never had portraits taken before.
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For Working-Class Chinese, 'Picture Day' Is A Rare Treat

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For Working-Class Chinese, 'Picture Day' Is A Rare Treat

For Working-Class Chinese, 'Picture Day' Is A Rare Treat

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the age of cell phones with cameras, it's hard to imagine that there people who don't have photos of themselves. But many low-income families around the world have never had their portraits taken, the kind that become keepsakes. Over the weekend, photographers with the U.S. nonprofit Health-Portrait view thousands of people in more than 20 countries early Christmas presents.

NPR's Frank Langfitt caught up with Help-Portrait volunteers in a working-class neighborhood in Shanghai and filed this postcard.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Ronny Chan is snapping away at a migrant couple with a pair of grandchildren on their laps. Xiao, Chan says, using the Mandarin word for smile. It's not working.

RONNY CHAN: Guys, can you get the grandmother to smile as well?

LANGFITT: Another volunteer makes bunny ears behind Chan's head. The grandkids - dressed in puffy coats and hats - remain stone-faced. Finally, the grandmother grins and Chan captures it.

Chan, an electrical engineer originally from Hong Kong, explains.

CHAN: They don't' have a lot of opportunities to take pictures. It's mostly like passport photos, right? It's got be like straight, very square. They haven't really done like sort of studio shots before.

LANGFITT: For the grandfather, Zhuo Wancang, this is his first portrait ever. Until a few months ago, he farmed corn and wheat in Gansu Province in China's northwest. The only photo he has of himself is on his government-issued ID card.

ZHUO WANCANG: (Through Translator) My grandson has never had his photo taken, so we came here together. It's free. I'm already 60 years old and I don't when I can have another photo with my grandson.

SUE ANNE TAY: My name is Sue Anne Tay. I'm from Singapore. I've been in Shanghai for almost six years.

LANGFITT: Tay works as a banker but spends her weekends documenting ordinary life here on a photo blog called Shanghai Street Stories. Today, she and 15 other volunteers have converted a community center into a portrait studio, complete with light stands and photo printers provided by Canon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: They're even using walkie-talkies to help process the 215 families they'll photograph today. Tay sees the portraits as a way to help a few of the millions of migrant workers who keep this mega-city running.

TAY: They do jobs that, you know, most upwardly mobile citizens prefer not to do. They're involved in the wholesale vegetable sector. You know, they cook food in the streets. They clean.

LANGFITT: Most earn no more than three to $500 a month.

When Tay and the other volunteers started shooting portraits here a few years back, people were suspicious.

TAY: And the first question is: This is free - why?

LANGFITT: Why do you think they ask you that?

TAY: It's tough to come by something free in China. You know, in China, everyone's out, you know, kind of - they have to take care of themselves. It's very rare that, you know?

LANGFITT: Someone does something for nothing.

Among the crowd last weekend was a woman named You. She hadn't had a formal photo taken in years because it was too time-consuming and expensive.

YOU: (Through Translator) This June, when my daughter came to visit, we went to the Town's God Temple and had her picture taken. It was a type of artistic portrait. Only one photo and it cost $20.

LANGFITT: After printing the photos, volunteers spread them on folding tables outside. People's eyes lit up. Some grabbed the portraits before the photographers could put them down.

(Foreign language spoken)

YOU: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I asked You why she thought these strangers - many of them foreigners - wanted to help people like her. She answered without pausing: This is charitable work, she said. It feels pretty good.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.


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