A bright red 2015 Chevy Cruze with Florida license plates sat idle in front of a modest storefront in Logan Square as Harry Aaron pointed at a tote bag sitting in the front seat.
“See, this is where all my V neck shirts are, and in the back — not sure if you can see — is a yoga mat” Aaron said pointing through his passenger-side window. “I use that for stretching my back. I do yoga at rest stops on the road to help with my back pains.”
For about a week, Aaron has been driving from the Southeast into the Midwest. Over the next week, the trip will take him through the Rust Belt and toward the East Coast. The trip will have him searching for any Walmart parking lot to sleep in and a Planet Fitness where he can bathe.
By trip’s end, the 28-year-old photographer will have put 3,500 miles on the Chevy’s odometer to complete his mission: providing professional headshots on a “pay-what-you-can basis” to unemployed workers and out-of-work performers.
The Refresh Portrait Series will have him hitting 10 cities from Florida to as far north as Maine.
“It is something where, city to city, I am in the same shoes as a lot of people I am shooting,” Aaron said. “My unemployment has run out, I don’t know when my next steady gig is going to be or how I am going to pay my rent back home.”
“It started as something to help others but has almost turned into a life raft for me,” Aaron said.
He gives each person 10 minutes, taking as many photos of them as he can in that time. The person picks their favorite three, which Aaron edits and sends to them within a couple of days.
Nadia Bernal, 19, drove from Uptown to get her first-ever headshots. She was nervous, but Aaron helped calm her down, she said.
“I think it’s really nice what [Aaron] is doing by helping unemployed workers and performing artists get their headshots,” Bernal said. “It is just amazing that he is going out of his way to just help people who are in need at this time.”
Bernal, a student at Harold Washington College, hopes to use the headshots to pursue an acting career.
Aaron lives in Orlando and has made a career in sports photography documenting the NBA and NFL as well as professional wrestling and Major League Soccer. Then the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic ended live entertainment seemingly all at once. Work began drying up for him in a city that has centered its economy around tourism, including the international conventions he often found side gigs with.
“I’m fully invested in this personally, emotionally and financially,” Aaron said. “Once this is all done, I have no other choice but to go see if my nearby Best Buy is still hiring.”
Before that time comes, he’s committed to helping others who’ve lost their jobs to the pandemic find something new.
“With how everything is online now, it doesn’t matter your industry, you need to have a professional headshot,” Aaron said.
His fight to stay afloat is apparent even as he provides what would otherwise be an expensive service for virtually nothing. Sitting on a table in the Logan Square studio was a clear container with a small sign: “Pay what you can afford.”
After two sessions early Friday evening, a single $20 bill was in the container. Normally, Aaron would charge over $500 for a single portrait session.
Anthony Ramos, 19, of Des Plaines saw the event ad on Instagram and reached out to Aaron to see how he could help. Ramos lounged around the studio, helping with the equipment and even got his portrait taken.
“I came here to help in any way I can because I think what [Aaron] is doing is a really good thing,” Ramos said. “Plus, this is what I want to get into with my career — want to be a photographer, writer and hopefully a journalist — so asking him questions has been really helpful to me.”
Ramos, a student at Oakton Community College, said he hopes everyone who comes through can gain something out of the event like he did.
By the end of the day, Aaron photographed six people, who together would donate $255. About $230 of that would go to the studio he rented for the day and the remaining $25 would go toward filling up the Chevy before making the journey to Buffalo, New York.
More information on Aaron’s trip and the Refresh Portrait Series is on his website: harryaaron.com.
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.