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USO, PMDA Provide Military Families With 'Portraits of Love'

Friday, December 21, 2012

By Joseph Andrew Lee 

Joel Stephens is an enlisted Navy Seabee deployed to Guam.

He’s been sent overseas three times in the last four years, so he’s missed a large chunk of his young children’s lives. A picture is all Joel will get to see of his family this holiday season.

“We try not to think about what he’s missed,” said Joel’s wife and high school sweetheart, Alenda, who lives near his garrison post at Naval Construction Battalion Center, Gulfport, Miss. “We try and focus on the moments we can spend together, and communicate either through photos or live video chat when possible.”

But live video chat isn’t always possible, especially with rambunctious toddlers. The idea of getting them to sit in front of a television or any sort of camera for any length of time is laughable.

“My two youngest have a lot of trouble sitting still and taking direction,” Alenda said. “So naturally I’ve been fearful of getting them all together for family portraits, but that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

If the fear of dressing her four kids in formal attire and spending a day wrestling for their attention wasn’t enough to dissuade her from getting family portraits taken by a professional, the cost of such an adventure – hundreds of dollars by most accounts – surely would.

That is why the PhotoImaging Manufactures and Distributors Association (PMDA) and the USO joined forces for the Portraits of Love Project – a joint venture to provide professional photographers with an opportunity to use their talents to show their appreciation for all those serving our country, both at home and abroad.

In early December, military families were invited for the second year in a row to participate in free portrait sessions hosted by the USO Gulf Coast. The portraits were taken by world-renowned New York photographers Rick Gerrity and John Bentham. Both photographers donated their time and resources to provide this service to local military families at the USO center at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

“When this opportunity came up it was a natural fit,” Bentham said. “I'm doing what I do best, [and] at the same time providing memories for military families and deployed servicemen and women.

“These families give up so much, especially around the holidays, it's the least I can do in return. Being apart from your loved ones for many months and on multiple deployments is not something I can possibly comprehend. If I am away on a shoot for even a week I miss my wife and our 5-year-old son Luke. Hopefully in creating these photographs I can make a few soldiers a little less lonely, gift them a touch of home until they themselves return home to their families.”

Approximately 60 military families took advantage of the two-day Portraits of Love event at USO Gulf Coast. Each family received a link to their images on Shutterfly, along with a code redeemable for two free prints.

These weren’t just your ordinary, family-huddled-in-a-group shots, either. The photographers used their talents to capture the essence of each family member’s personality. From two quarreling brothers dressed in matching plaid shirts to super-close-up shots of infants to entire families huddled under an American flag, Gerrity and Bentham used multiple angles and lenses to tell each family’s story.

“It is truly an honor to be able to provide this service to our nation’s men and women in uniform,” USO Gulf Coast Director Felice Kelly Gillum said. “It was wonderful to see so many different families from so many walks of life all coming in to take advantage of this opportunity.”

“We all had a really good time," Alenda said. “The photographers worked great with my kids – especially the younger ones. It was a great experience all around, and Joel will be surprised because it’s something out of the ordinary for us to do. He’ll be impressed that I got the kids to actually sit still for a picture.”

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but that saying couldn’t have come from a deployed spouse or parent. For these men and women who sacrifice memories and moments in life they will never get back, there simply aren’t enough words to describe the value of a family portrait during the holidays.

For them, a picture is priceless.

For more information on Portraits of Love, please visit or check out the Project’s Facebook page at:

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Photo caption: Alenda Stephens, wife of deployed Navy Seabee Petty Officer Joel Stephens, poses for family portraits with their four children: Imani, 7, Josiah, 6, and twin 3-year-old boys Jayden and Jordan. (USO photo by John Bentham) 

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