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What a difference a portrait makes
Two high-schoolers offer quintessential senior experience for Twin Cities area peers who can’t afford professional photos
Two Mounds Park Academy students are sometimes compensated for taking senior photos for Twin Cities high-schoolers who can’t afford a professional photographer, but usually not with money.
“We’ve been paid in hugs, candy and donations,” said Kendra Stone, who lives in Lake Elmo.
That’s payment enough for the 18-year-old and Phillipe Thao of Hudson, Wis., who teamed up in May to take portraits of teens nearing graduation for free.
Some of the hours they have spent shooting pictures helped fulfill a community service requirement at the private school, an hour-count they long ago exceeded. They’ll continue to snap photographs together at least through this summer before they head to college.
Since picking up the project from a 2013 graduate and calling it KP Photography, Stone and Thao have learned they’re doing more than simply taking a couple of nice pictures for students to put in the yearbook or hang in a frame on Grandma’s wall.
They hope to give students the quintessential senior photo shoot experience, something that they say “everyone deserves.”
Like many professional studios, they encourage individuality. They allow multiple outfits, tromp around a favorite setting and coax people to smirk, goof off or laugh, catching the crinkles around their eyes.
The duo has seen that a polished senior photo is still valued, even in a generation that helped popularize casual self-portraits — or “selfies” — and photo-centric social media that induce over-documentation. It’s a special way to memorialize and top off a high school career, they say.
There’s an element of status in having professional photos to hand out to friends, too.
It’s also about being able to look at them 20 years later, Stone said, and poke fun at outdated clothing or young-adult coiffing choices.
They received some unexpected affirmation a few weeks ago in a card from a client’s mother.
“She told us how heartwarming it is that we were able to provide this opportunity for her son, because they weren’t able to afford professional photography,” Thao said.
Those who can’t shell out hundreds for a photographer miss out on what’s become the norm.
“Something as small as a senior portrait can mean a lot to someone,” said Thao, who turns 18 at the end of January. “[We thought] it was just taking photos, and maybe it would be something fun to do over the summer for senior year. I didn’t really realize until now how much it impacts people.”
Seniors inherited the project
The photography editors for the school’s yearbook inherited the endeavor from Callan Shackor, a student who graduated in 2013. She launched it as a sustainable project to earn the Girl Scout Gold Award.
Shackor took photos of students in Breakthrough St. Paul, an enrichment program for “highly motivated” students looking to prepare for college through a partnership between St. Paul Public Schools and MPA.
Thao and Stone expanded it, offering their talent to any Twin Cities area students who can’t afford a professional photographer.
“We like to say that we took Callan’s project and put it on steroids,” Stone said.
Within a few weeks, they slapped together a Facebook page, drafted a watermark for images and composed sample pictures.
It was slow going at first, but once the word spread through parent-to-parent references, and social and traditional media, their schedules filled up fast.
Every single weekend, August through October, they took photos. They even had to turn down a couple of people, because they couldn’t make the timing work.
“We didn’t realize there was such a high demand for this,” Stone said. “I didn’t think it would take off like that. It’s kind of like wildfire. It keeps spreading — in a good way.”
Natural is key
They take a “natural” approach to the images: natural light, natural poses and natural settings. Often, they head out to Minnehaha Falls for a two- or three-hour session.
Stone said she’ll just start talking, trying to put people at ease despite the fact that two young photographers are hovering over them.
During a shoot, a subject’s hair started blowing back as if a fan was set up, so Stone got a little whimsical to get her to crack up. She said, “Oh — we’ve got wind!”
“We have some people who are shy,” Stone said. “At the end, they’re laughing.”
Their style is evident in the pictures posted on their Facebook page. The images capture expressions ranging from subtle smirks to noses scrunched in laughter.
A behind-the-scenes photo shows Stone sharing the camera’s viewing screen with a girl dressed in traditional Hmong clothing, an elaborate outfit that included a headdress with beaded fringe dangling from it. The teen is smiling wide, seemingly marveling at an image of herself that Stone captured seconds before.
After they upload images at home, they spend a little time editing blemishes. They tend to make the colors slightly more concentrated, while steering away from the look of over-edited glamour shots.
They give the hundreds of photos to the subject on a thumb drive, a disk or through an online sharing website. Finished off with a watermark, the images can blend in with those taken at a professional studio.
New to the craft
When Stone isn’t caught up in multiple sports, band or speech team and Thao isn’t acting in theatre productions, they’re setting up photo shoots.
“I really enjoy taking photos,” Thao said. “I found that [the service project] is great practice for me, even though I’m not thinking about going into photography.”
Stone and Thao are self-taught. They picked up photography a few years ago, according to Stone, learning through hours of practice.
“We make a lot of mistakes, and then we learn from our mistakes,” Stone said.
While they described similar reasons for why they do it, they both get something different from it.
Stone said she gets sucked into the view of the world created by the camera lens, and begins noticing details in the shot that could enhance or detract from the subject.
“It’s a different way of viewing a person,” she said. “You have a completely different perspective. You start to see more.”
A creative person and an art lover, Thao liked that photography was an art form he had never worked with before.
He said it allows him to “capture people in moments,” but it also allowed him to make many of his own.
It started his sophomore year. Thao was the yearbook staff design editor in charge of layouts and spreads. He eventually decided to pick up a camera to cover school events.
“I’m really a shy person,” Thao said. “I found that photography helped me step out of my shell a little bit and help with my communications skills.”
Wielding a camera, he attended “pretty much every school event” in his junior year.
A skill, probably not a career
Thao and Stone met in eighth grade and will soon graduate with about 50 other people in MPA’s class of 2014. Now friends and business partners, the two seniors have gotten to know each other’s style.
“I could probably respond for him right now, but I’m not going to,” Stone said in an interview.
Graduation looms, and KP Photography most likely won’t continue much longer as-is.
Stone said she hopes to keep the service going, but she and Thao have applied to schools in different states. Both have had paid photography gigs, but neither of them is thinking of photography as a career.
In the meantime, Stone knows they can make a difference with their cameras.
“I have a skill I can offer to a whole group of people who don’t usually have access to it,” Stone said. “I don’t believe in charging people thousands for a couple of pictures. We don’t want money to be a burden in this.”
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814, firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/KRobyNews.