Introducing Christopher and the Start of My $2 Portraits Project


Earlier this week I decided that I was going to start a new project. I’m calling the project $2 portraits and the project works like this. From this week going forward until the day that I die I am going to offer $2 to anyone who asks me for money in exchange for their portrait. While I’m taking their portrait I’m going to ask their name and try to learn a little bit about them. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life — assuming that I can afford to.

To make things easier I’m putting $2 in reserve money in a special place in my wallet so that even if I don’t have change I will always have the $2 to hand over.

In part I’m undertaking this project because I realize that I’ve been avoiding people asking me for money. My biggest motivation behind this project however is simply that I think human interaction is a good thing. I’m not doing this to exploit homeless people or show how hard and bad life can be. I’m doing this because I want to celebrate other human beings as human beings and I think that this commercial transaction gives us an opportunity to engage and interact on a more human level… and I also think that I can take a pretty decent portrait.

After deciding to do this earlier this week I came across the first person asking me for money earlier today. His name is Christopher and that is his portrait at the top of this post.

Christopher has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 10 years. He’s originally from Illinois. He’s 35 years old. Christopher is a father and he has three teenage kids who also live in the Bay Area.

I offered Christopher $2 but he asked me for $2.15. He said that a Deluxe Bacon cheeseburger at Jack in the Box was $4.15 and he already had $2. So I gave him $2.15.

Christopher seemed pleased to have his portrait taken and as soon as we were done took off towards Jack in the Box.

Update: Some people have asked me if it would be ok if they start their own version of this project as well. I think that is great and believe that frequently the best projects become collaborative. With that in mind I’ve created a new $2 Portraits group on Flickr. If you’d to feel free to join the group and post your own $2 portraits there.

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145 comments on “Introducing Christopher and the Start of My $2 Portraits Project
  1. TranceMist says:

    I think you’re on to something and it’s fantastic!

    I suggest keeping the ready $2 somewhere other than your wallet. You never know when someone will have the bright idea to grab it, or complain that they see a lot more money in there.

    Oh, and next time I see you, I’m asking you for $2. :)

  2. paul burd says:

    hmmm… I may have to give this a try too. Although, I may go broke walking around Soma (my hood).

  3. Andy Roth says:

    You know, Thomas, I have a feeling that many years from now, despite all that you have accomplished already, this $2 Portrait Project will be one of the things that you are most known for. This is a rare idea that is powerful and good on many levels. Thank you for thinking of this and sharing it with us.

  4. Dave Id says:

    Sounds like an awesome project. Keeping my eyes peeled

  5. Aaron says:

    Interesting project. I would assume not every shot will make it to your blog, but are you going to keep them all in a common Flickr set?

    Was this inspired (at least in part) by the photo you shot up here in Portland of the gentleman on the Burnside Bridge?

  6. bphelmet says:

    that’s a great idea, maybe i should do something like that too since i live in vancouver and there’s people asking for change all over the place, but then again i’ll go bankrupt real soon if i do that XD.

  7. Wizum says:

    funny… I have done this in the past as well… not as a mission or regular thing, but just in my photo strolls around Atlanta where I live. There are some places in and around Atlanta where some of the homeless/street people will see you with a camera and immediatley want you to take their pic. I think they feel as if they then are “earning” the money they would otherwise be asking for.

  8. I just came across this post via another blog and had to tell you what a fantastic idea I think this is. I can’t wait to see the evolution of an artistic project from such a brilliant idea.

  9. Tim says:

    Inspiring idea. If I ever see you I’m asking you for $1.85 to make up for your first portrait. I’ll try and have change if you don’t.

  10. Pat Hawks says:

    Any interest in turning this into a community project?
    Rather, you mind if I rip off this idea?

  11. Sean says:

    I love the idea, Thomas. Love it.

    Hoping to make your Seattle Photowalk in July.

  12. Samantha says:

    I think that’s a really awesome idea, Thomas.

    Kudos my friend!

    The Highway Girl

  13. Anonymous says:

    Not doing this to exploit homeless people? Then, if they refuse to have their portrait taken will you still give them the $2? Do you plan to tell them about your “$2 Portrait Project” and alert them to the fact that their photo and $2 transaction will be posted for the world to see?

  14. Ruben says:

    That’s a pretty good idea.. I have mixed feeling about taking photos of homeless, or anyway, people asking for money (however here in Japan I’ve yet to see a homeless asking money), but definitely I think the recipe -human interaction, money and photo- is great for karma.

  15. Manish says:

    Wish you all the best. Please do tell us from time to time how it is going.

  16. Mark says:

    You should use two-dollar bills so you can pack more of them in your wallet. :)

  17. Colin says:

    How generous! I’ll give *you* $2 if you take my portrait.

  18. Frank Lynch says:

    Brave – – it tangentially reminds me of one of my favorite portrait series. In Berne (CH) the historical has a collection of 18th (?) C paintings of the people of an entire town. Not just the people who could afford to commission their own portraits, but everyone. A visual census.

    Too often people like you’re focusing on are ignored in portraiture.

  19. Rsplatpc says:

    No offense but this has been done by a lot of people before, and I really don’t see the merit, seems exploitive. Seems like you’ll be doing a lot of enabling to have a “artisy” project.

  20. Ed says:

    This is a great project. I tried to give a homeless man money for a portrait in downtown Pontiac Michigan just recently and I was told be a police officer not to take pictures because they did not want to encourage pan handling. Although I disagreed with the officer I did not want trouble, so I stopped. I think your idea is great and I will continue to do the same when the opportunity arises.


  21. That’s a very refreshing idea.

  22. Mike Pearce says:

    Great idea, I think I’ll have a go too – one thing that I wonder though is do you need to worry about model release forms?

    I guess only if you intend to sell the portraits…

  23. Rsplatpc says:

    “Christopher seemed pleased to have his portrait taken and as soon as we were done took off towards Jack in the Box.”

    ….Which happened to be located right next door to a ABC store……

  24. Mari says:

    great great idea!!!

  25. Dave! says:

    I don’t think it’s exploitive at all… I think it’s awesome. Of course, I would probably give them the $2 even if they refused a pic…

    Keep at it, I cannot wait to see all the results.

  26. Hey Thomas. This is a great and so positive thing you started. I think this is a very good direction to go in terms of social activities. Seems you have a big heart, man. Greetings from Germany – gonna digg this now.

  27. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thanks all for the positive feedback and encouragement. It will be interesting to see how this project unfolds.

    In response to a couple of questions.

    1. Yes, I plan on giving the person $2 even if they say no to the portrait.

    2. I’m still feeling the project out, but my idea is to talk about the project briefly with the person as well. If someone objects to my publishing their photo I won’t publish it. In general I don’t publish photos of people that they don’t want published and I take down photos of people that they ask me to take down — unless the photo is around a specific political issue like photographer’s rights and the person is involved in an altercation with me or something like that.

    I need to redo my Moo cards as I’m out of cards, but I plan on giving a moo card to each person I shoot as well to point them to where they can see the photo online if they’d like and to also give them a way to contact me if need be.

    We will see how it goes. It is a work in progress.

  28. Noel says:

    Great idea TH! I invite you next December to come out and distribute survival kits to the homeless with a charity which I helped start, The Giving Spirit.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I’ve also seen a different side of this traveling the world with a camera. It turns what used to be a simple exchange of taking someone’s picture into begging or negotiation (and/or guilt). I’m not passing judgment on your idea but it commercializes street photography in some sense. I like the fact you call it a portrait – it is a known exchange with the subject (with or without money).

  30. Anonymous says:

    As mentioned before this is nothing new (most photography has already been done anyway)

    It is exploitative if you’re not telling them that the photo will be posted for the world to see. I have a feeling that most homeless people aren’t that internet savvy and don’t realize the scope an image can travel.

    Handing out your card? Really? You think a homeless person has internet access and can look up your site?

    On the other hand I do like the project but I think you need to be more up front with your subject. Tell them what you’re doing with the photo and interact. Tell them that everyone in the world might see it. The photo is much more interesting with a story behind it.

    Sure there’s no law saying you have to do any of this but it seems like the decent thing to do.

    What do you think?

  31. Leica1956 says:

    This helps on so many levels. I do this any time I’m in Chicago, NYC or any “big city”. Mainly because I live in a smallish town in the Midwest. Although I usually offer $1, I guess that doesn’t get much anymore, inflation sucks! I really like your stuff, keep it up.

  32. Markus says:

    Wow Thomas! That’s a really nice project! Do you publish all photos on this blog, too? Or is there an extra feed / category I have to subscribe?

  33. ToAsTy! says:

    i think its a nice project to go for. But i think you’ll understand that after a few dozens or so 2$ people you interview and ask their life story, you’ll start to hear similar paths that led them to where they are.
    There will be alot of happy stories and sad real sad ones with it. When you know them by first name you’ll either embrace the story behind the person or repel you for what they’ve done to themselves.
    And when they ask you for 2$ more in future times, you’ll wonder of all those stories of working hard to get out (if they even say such things) are real or not.

  34. This is a beautiful image, Thomas, much like the first one that started this project. It is sad to think of how many people are homeless in the US and many other countries.

  35. Ron says:

    Is it exploitation? It’s an interesting question, which raises many more.

    Would you spontaneously make the same offer to a soccer mom on the same street? Would she be likely to say yes? A businessman? A college student?

    If the homeless person is likely to take you up on it, and the others aren’t, what’s the difference?

    Would you expect any non-homeless person to pose for less than the prevailing model rate in San Francisco? If so, is it a sliding scale based on experience? Appearance? Need?

    Is $2 the prevailing model wage for the homeless in San Francisco? Does the expected wage change if you listen to their life story?

  36. Almond Butterscotch says:

    i think its a great idea, but i do have a reservation about it…

    someone said the jack in the box was right next to an ABC

    ild be summat worried that these people would be usin the 2 dollars in an attempt to [fennegal (Sp?)] acquire drugs or booze… i know its a problem in houston, and ild assume similarly in the bay area…

    still, its something new to photograph, yes?

  37. tymmbee says:

    This is such an incredible project. Please continue it and share these beautiful photos with the world, and please give an update on things you have learned along the way that could help us who are interested in trying this also. It is a great way for us to do our part in helping out those who could use a helping hand and shows others the beauty that exists in all people, if we only take a moment to look.

  38. Alastair says:

    Great idea. I’m going to rob it and use it myself. I hope you don’t mind. I’ll credit you for the idea though :)

  39. John says:

    Mark mentioned using actual two-dollar bills. I used to do this a long time ago and just last week went to the bank for the bills to re-stock my camera bag.

    Usually works wonders for model releases, quick releases. People really think two-dollar bills are rare when in reality there are plenty in circulation. As far as the US Mint is concerned (and last reported) their last printing was in 2003 and they’ll print more when they need to.

    I also have 15 or so Sacagawea $1 ‘gold’ coins in my bag but have not tried them in public to gauge their effectiveness.


  40. Chris says:

    Hey Thomas,

    First off, great pics!

    I was just wondering also, can you share a little about what gear you used and what kind of portable lighting you are using to take these images? I’m really interested in doing the same but I’m worried about lugging along expensive equipment…

    Thanks and please keep it up!

  41. Thomas Hawk says:

    Hey Chris, I’m not using any artificial lighting. I’ll typically try to find interesting lighting and have the person move to that on the street or oftentimes am just shooting in shade to avoid shadows in the face and harsh highlights. I don’t always get the flexibility that I want because the photos are taken in such a short sitting.

  42. kalong says:

    I lOVE this idea!! What a great way to make the world a brighter place.

  43. Russell says:

    If you run into my brother, cousins and brothers and cousins of my friends out there, you’ll only be helping them get high. I love your photographs.

  44. kelli. says:

    wow. this is truly inspiring. so beautiful. so touching. THANK YOU!!!!!

  45. Jill says:

    Just when I thought you couldn’t get any greater, you come up with this. Kudos to you!

  46. Aaron(tm) says:

    I think you are on to something here. The way I understand it is… you ask for a picture – if they ask for money you offer $2 max. Sounds like a fair trade to me. Some subjects might choose not to charge you — that’s fine. Some might want more than $2 — your choice to pay more if you want (you seem to be sticking to the $2 limit and I like that).

    I see nothing unfair about this and it appears that your subjects are more than happy to tell their story.

    There was a program on our public radio (Canadian Broadcasting Corp or CBC) talking to homeless people. What most seamed to say is that they didn’t mind being without shelter, clothing or food. What really hurt was being “invisible”. People just walking past ignoring them.

    Keep shooting.

  47. Hi Thomas

    This is a brilliant idea! I’m going to start doing this as well!

    I blogged about it. Hope thats ok.


  48. Noel MacDoanld says:

    I love your idea, it’s a different approach to something I’m involved in:

    With two amazing photographers, Wayne Kaulbach and Adam Blasberg, I approached the First United Church in Vancouver BC about a portrait project for the community it serves. First United is located at the centre of the poorest postal code in Canada, and provides food, clothing, shelter and a voice to the homeless and poor of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Each day close to 100 people sleep on, and around, the pews of the church, and hundreds of others come to get mail, a meal, a shower, advocacy, or a kind word. We pitched the church on creating natural light portraits to add to an existing program that supplies and mails Christmas cards for clients.
    Wayne, Adam and I made up the criteria and process as we went along, not knowing whether we would get any uptake from the community at all. In the end, over 4 weeks of shooting, we photographed almost 200 amazing folk.
    The paybacks were huge and unexpected.
    Clients got as much from the process as the product. They had 30 to 45 minutes where someone really looked at them, focusing on positive features, where they had an opportunity to talk about their lives, and where we created an image that excluded their physical surrounding and showed who they were, inside.
    The three of us each came away from our experience convinced that we had got significantly more than we received. We met funny, engaging, thoughtful people that shared their stories of community, hope, despair, and victory. And the connection with those people has grown outside of the project.
    The images we created reconnected families, were gifts for special friends on the street and, for two people since Christmas, were used at memorial services.
    It’s a simple rewarding program that we are going to do each year, with the aim to broadening the reach to other parts of the Vancouver street community.
    And it’s an idea that we hope takes seed in other cities.
    AND 3 5X7 images costs us about $2.50 (Canadian) to print.

  49. Noel MacDonald says:

    Geez I can’t believe I mispelled my own name.
    I am (truly) Noel MacDonald. And if you want more info and background on the homeless/poverty portrait project we created in Vancouver send me a note at noelmacdonald (at)

    Sorry about the typo – it was a Seniors Moment.

  50. sarah says:

    oh man… i’ve had this idea for years, but have never done it!

  51. Fran Simó says:

    Very interesting… I was thinking in another approach: carrying an mobile printer and giving a “instant” portrait. I bought a Fuji Pivi MP-300.

    Of course, homeless will be more happy with money… but normal people may prefer their picture.

  52. Justina says:

    Ron said, “Is $2 the prevailing model wage for the homeless in San Francisco? Does the expected wage change if you listen to their life story?”

    The way I see it is $2 for three, five, maybe ten minutes of someone’s time is decent. $2 is closer to getting dinner for the first time in three days. Don’t kick people while they’re down. If you don’t agree with it then don’t pay someone for doing you a favor. Photographers pay most models shitty amounts anyways. So what if the homeless are a little hairier?

  53. Brianna says:

    This is a fantastic idea!

  54. Re Pessoa says:

    If you do this project in Brazil, you won’t have money enough neither time to photograph everybody who ask you for money…

  55. Me says:

    My Pastor past along a great idea. Instead of giving money why not give two new pairs of gym socks. Why two pairs? one for them and the other for their buddy. Most of the time they will not use the money for food. They will use the socks tho. And winter is just around the corner

  56. erdem says:

    woow. i like this project. maybe i should do like that in my country…cong.

  57. Arvid says:

    Great idea, which I would be able to create such great portraits but I still require some practice, will keep following your project and maybe in the end, I will start doing the same!

    Keep up the great work!

  58. jim hair says:

    Dear Thomas,
    Great plan, keep it up.
    I started looking through your Flickr site and admit that I wanted to see how many images you have posted (30,000+) thinking that you are shooting for the numbers and not for substance. Seeing the portrait of Sarah with an H and reading her story changed my mind.
    You will meet plenty of people who won’t understand what you are doing or won’t want to participate, but you will also meet some who will connect with what you are doing, and it may be the spark that helps them. It is possible that after talking with you Sarah called her grandmother.
    The stories you collect are as important as the photographs, as are the five minutes you spend with an individual listening.
    We have a food bank in the town where I am living, and I will suggest we set up a photo studio, make simple portraits that can be mailed to family. We have no control over what happens to many of the people we meet, but if we are able to help a few connect with family, I think it is worthwhile.

    Finally, there are plenty of people who will photograph strangers at a distance, and not talk to them. Photographs are “taken” in this way all the time. You have the ability to make a good portrait of someone who has been ignored, and is often shunned, so I encourage you to continue. Isn’t one of the best qualities of love the unconditional aspect; you are probably one of the few people who will relate to these individuals without judging them.

    These portraits and the stories that accompany them, are the images I will be most interested in. How often as photpographers are we given the possibility to help change a person’s life?

    Best Wishes,

  59. Brian says:

    I’ve read many of the comments, I connected here via the flickr group. Having traveled in many parts of the world it’s been a courtesy to give the equivalent of a buck or two for someone’s picture or to at least buy something from their shop. It’s good. I try to look for soup kitchen/bus tokens or McD coupons when dealing with the homeless.
    I am curious do you have the person sign a model release for use of the image for general uses: educational/editorial/web/documentary?

  60. Kortney says:

    This is SUCH a good idea! Thanks for being so open to other people who want to do it too! I’m defintely going to do it! My bf and I give out money to homeless people and I think taking their photo could be a very effective way of giving them even more help than they realize. Thanks for your incredible ingenuity!

  61. Terri says:

    This is a wonderful idea. I would like to take part in this project as well.

  62. melanie says:

    brilliant and inspiring!

  63. Brandon says:

    Excellent idea Thomas.

  64. sue says:

    I think this is amazing, and I think I will begin to do the same. Great idea!

  65. Patricia says:

    I love this ! Since I love photograhpy as well maybe I could take my little cheap Nikon and make enough to purchase a really good camera. LOL !!! Seriously though it is a great concept.

  66. Daniella says:

    Great concept, amazing photos! Genius.

  67. Jim says:

    I applaud you!!! This is a good way to help people & at the same time feel extremely blessed for what we have. Health,family & a place to live is sometimes things I take for granted. I actually have thought of the same idea, but I want to travel the nation & write one page on each homeless person I meet & include photo’s. Not quite retired yet, but I may just keep 2 bucks in my wallet & get started today. Thanks for your inspiration:) God Bless

  68. Dan says:

    Hi Thomas,
    The $2 portrait idea is GREAT. But like it was mentioned before, you should use a $2 bill as payment. I most times will use $2 bills to purchase stuff, and the reactions are quite amusing at times.

  69. lex says:

    Outstanding. I tried to make it on the street at a caricature artist – fail. I had tons of people take photos and video of me, and never got any money from ‘em. I then went to panhandling for a few months and surprise – no one wanted to take a picture of me.

    As for the wallet-snatch factor, I don’t know. I’ve had a million people open their purses and wallets around me and I often thought they ought to be more careful. If I were a “snatcher” I’d have had a field day often. What’s a nice system is to keep a few dollars in a handy location, a pocket or something, to give out without getting out the wallet or purse. Asking folks for money near their cars worked out well for me, people generally have a little money in their center console or something, and felt safer near their cars – which was false. If I were a car-jacker, they’d have been in trouble.

    Psychology is fascinating!

    PS I hated panhandling, between the people thinking I’d use the money for drugs, the people offering me cigarettes (I don’t smoke) and the people scared of me, well, I prefer to do just about anything else, if tenable.

    If you can keep this up over time, it’ll become a very well-known project.

  70. What an amazing idea. I’d love to take part in this as I also have a bad habit of avoiding people who ask for money.

  71. I’m absolutely going to go bankrupt doing in Toronto, although I think it’s an excellent idea.

    I’m very curious to see how you develop this and to see how others respond – could easily catch on….

    All the best!

  72. Mike says:

    This idea struck me as giving back a little dignity to some homeless people. Many times people will give money (as I have in the past), with little or no interaction.

    One night a homeless man was begging at a intersection with a long light. I suggested this to him and he agreed. I unfortunately, did not have a camera, but I asked his name and some history. I asked if it was OK if I returned the following weekend to take his picture and he agreed. I thanked him by name. While I waited for the light to change, he started to cry and told me people will give change, but no one asked about him, let alone call him by his name.

    Sadly, two days later, I read he was hit and killed by a drunk driver. I now carry my camera with me at all times.

    His name was Max Gregory Pruette, and the drive who killed him is still unknown.

  73. Roughtimes says:

    This is awesome, i really like this idea. Definitely mutually beneficial. I hope to be able to contribute to the flickr group!