A holiday gift of sorts came early in more than 20 countries over the weekend, as volunteer photographers shot free, studio-quality portraits of more than 16,000 people who otherwise couldn't have afforded them.
A working-class neighborhood of Shanghai was among the more than 130 sites where the photo shoots took place, part of a global project inspired by Help-Portrait, a U.S.-based nonprofit.
Ronny Chan, an electrical engineer originally from Hong Kong, was among the 16 volunteers at the New Citizen Life Center. He spent much of his day trying to coax smiles from subjects who had rarely if ever sat for portraits.
"Xiao," said Chan, using the Mandarin word for smile, as he tried to brighten up the expressions on a migrant couple with a pair of grandchildren on their laps.
Sue Anne Tay, another volunteer, made rabbit ears behind Chan's head, but the grandchildren — dressed in puffy coats and hats — remained stone-faced.
Finally, the grandmother grinned and Chan captured it.
"They don't have a lot of opportunities to take pictures," said Chan, explaining the often-sober expressions of his subjects. "It's mostly like passport photos. They haven't really done studio shots before."
For the grandfather, Zhuo Wancang, this was his first-ever portrait. 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.
"My grandson has never had his photo taken, so we came here together. It's free!" said Zhou, who zipped his black winter coat all the way to the neck in what looked like an attempt to appear more formal. "I'm already 60 years old, and I don't know when I can have another photo with my grandson."
Zhou and the others were photographed at a community center, which volunteers had converted into a studio, complete with light stands and photo printers provided by Canon. They even used walkie-talkies to help process the 215 families who showed up.
The volunteers, including Tay, are members of a Shanghai Flickr group. Tay has lived in Shanghai for six years and works as a banker during the week, but spends some of her weekends exploring old neighborhoods and documenting the city's dramatic transformation on a photo blog called Shanghai Street Stories. She sees the portraits as a way to help a few of the millions of migrant workers who keep this megacity running.
"They do jobs that most upwardly mobile citizens prefer not to do," said Tay, 34. "They're involved in the wholesale vegetable sector. They cook food in the streets. They clean."
Most earn no more than $300 to $500 a month.
When Tay and the other volunteers first started shooting portraits in Shanghai five years ago, people were suspicious.
"The first question is: 'This is free? Why?' " said Tay.
She said the people were initially distrustful because it's hard to find something free in China, and it's rare that someone does something for nothing around here.
Among the crowd last weekend was a woman named You, who hadn't had a formal photo taken in years because it was too time-consuming and expensive.
You said her daughter went to Shanghai's Town God Temple last summer and had a single portrait done at a cost of about $20.
"It was expensive," she said.
After printing the photos Saturday, volunteers spread them on folding tables outside. People's eyes lit up, and some grabbed the portraits before the photographers could put them down.
Asked why she thought these strangers — many of them foreigners — wanted to help people like her, You answered without pausing.
"This is charitable work," she said. "It feels pretty good."
Support the news
More NPR or Explore Audio.