Photographers Capture Spirit of Kids in Need of Homes

In city after city, many of the finest photographers in the country -- some of whom command thousands of dollars for a portrait or an ad -- have worked for free on a project that became a labor of love.

Their job was to coax out the best in hundreds of children whose lives could change because of the impact of one photograph. The children are all in foster care. The purpose behind the project, called the Heart Gallery, is to help find families for them by using professional photographers to personalize them -- to bring out the spirit and individuality that are all too often invisible in the typical shots that accompany the children's files once they have entered the foster care system.

"They look like mug shots," said David Bergman, a Sports Illustrated photographer who was one of the volunteers. "You can't really get a glimpse into a child's personality, or you really don't know anything about them by looking at those pictures."

As the photographers discovered, many of the children they have documented are desperately in need of change.

Photojournalist Najlah Feanny noticed one child who was resisting having his photo taken. "And I came to find out ... that he had been in seven foster homes in his seven or eight years of life. And he'd been abused in all of them."

Feanny, who has traveled the world on assignments, was stunned by what she discovered near her own hometown in New Jersey. "You find out this kid lives five miles from your house. And somebody starved him."

Working with Pim Van Hemmen of the Newark Star-Ledger, Feanny became the irresistible force who helped assemble a who's-who of 150 photographers with the goal of shooting every one of the more than 300 foster children in the state of New Jersey who are legally available for adoption.

The pictures eventually were mounted for display in gallery exhibits in New Jersey, to encourage prospective parents to think about adoption. The Star-Ledger began a series of profiles of the children.

Billy was one of the children who was enthusiastic about having his portrait taken (child care authorities have asked that the last names of children cited in this article not be used). He is 14 years old, and has been in foster care for nearly 10 years. He would be delighted to be discovered by a family.

"I'd be happy more than anything," he said, "because I could finally go home … and make some friends I can actually stay with for a while."

What may have begun as a way of helping a good cause became a mission for many of the photographers.

Martin Schoeller is a world-famous photographer known for his close-up portraits of celebrities. "The thing that changed me most," he said, "is the sense that I got from a lot of those kids. They want nothing else more than having parents."

One of Schoeller's Heart Gallery assignments was to shoot Courtney and Vincent, siblings who live apart in foster care. Schoeller knew that one of the hoped-for results from the photos is to get siblings adopted together into the same family. He wanted something that showed their relationship. And he worked hard to get it.

"Vincent's sister [Courtney] was very laughing and giggly, and would always kind of cuddle up to her big brother. And he was very stoic and sincere looking."

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