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Early Thursday evening, in a third-floor room at Missoula’s Head Start building on Worden Avenue, portrait photographer Crackle Bingham peeked behind a hanging backdrop, and pointed at 7-year-old Alejo Parr.

“Oh, Alejo, you’re gonna make me work for this, aren’t you?” joked Bingham. “How about you come around here now and jump onto this big pillow?”

Alejo laughed, ducked momentarily toward the exit, then hurled himself onto the pillow at Bingham’s feet.

“OK girls, quick now!” Bingham said, addressing Alejo’s sisters, Raini, 6, and Kallie, 5. “Pile on top of your brother!”

***

Squealing, the two girls jumped on Alejo’s back, and Bingham snapped a few photographs before Alejo managed to wiggle free and retreat behind the backdrop again. Nearby, the children’s mother, Debbie Parr of Butte, watched, shaking her head with a wry grin.

“We’ve never had any pictures of our family done before,” said Debbie. “It’s kinda overwhelming with the kids. But it’s fun, and it’s nice to think we’ll have a good picture.”

Across the room, photographer Youa Vang scrolled through a series of photos on her camera, of a father and son she had only met moments before.

“When I was young, I wish we could have done this as a family,” said Vang. “My parents didn’t speak very good English, so I think they probably didn’t know how to find a way to get our portraits taken. So I’m glad to be able to do something like this for other people who might not otherwise be able to get a family portrait.”

***

Vang and Bingham were among a handful of professional photographers, along with a small army of hairstylists and makeup artists, who showed up on Thursday to participate in a free portrait shoot at Head Start, which serves educational and other needs of children from low-income families.

Organized by photographer Dax Kuehn, the event was inspired equally by the work of his mother, Head Start education coordinator Joan Kuehn, and an international event last December known as Help Portrait.

“Growing up, I’d hear these stories from my mom of all these low-income families who don’t have photos of any of them growing up because they can’t afford to have a camera,” said Dax Kuehn. “That really pulled at my heartstrings. So after hearing about (Help Portrait), I was bound and determined to make this work here.”

Help Portrait was the brainchild of Jeremy Cowart, a Nashville-based celebrity photographer who, in late 2009, began spreading the word about his simple concept: Find people in need, take their portraits, print their portraits and deliver their portraits. Organized by word of mouth on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the international Help Portrait day, on Dec. 12, drew participation by more than 8,300 photographers, who shot portraits of more than 40,000 individuals in 42 countries.

“Help Portrait is basically a general calling to all photographers to start giving back,” said Kuehn, who aims to organize other future events such as last Thursday’s shoot at Head Start. “It never ceases to amaze me the effect that a photo can have on a person, helping them feel beautiful and confident and special. It goes so far into a person’s psyche. And these families, they deserve that feeling more than anybody.

“The thing I always say, it’s about giving photos, not taking them.”

Dax’s mother, Joan, echoed that sentiment as she watched a stream of families line up for photos.

“We serve families at Head Start who are at 100 percent of the poverty level – people living in cars and on the street, people who are getting evicted because they have no money, people who are really struggling every day,” said Joan. “So something like this, it really means something to them, I think.”

In his own makeshift studio down the hall, Dax welcomed 5-year-old Nyreec Adams and her father, Kyle.

“Oh, you’re a cute one, aren’t you?” said Dax, drawing a sheepish grin out of Nyreec. As her father looked on, Dax snapped a few photographs of the girl.

“C’mon, dad, get in here,” Dax waved to Kyle.

Father and daughter cuddled up together on the floor in front of a maroon backdrop as Dax snapped more photos. Slowly, a smile warmed on Kyle’s face.

“Oh, oh,” said Dax, looking at the preview window on his camera. “Oh, that one is absolutely adorable. We even got a smile out of your dad, Nyreec. See?”

Nyreec and Kyle peered at the photo. Nyreec giggled.

“Yeah,” said Kyle, smiling warmly. “That is adorable.”

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