When Lauren Hutson was little, she enjoyed watching her grandfather take their family’s photos. He was their Family Photographer, “the historian of our family,” Lauren’s mom recalled recently. “She was always amazed.”

Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. He can be reached at joeearle@reporternewspapers.net.

Lauren decided that someday she wanted to do that, too. When she was in the sixth grade, her parents bought a Canon Rebel that was supposed to be a “family camera” shared by everyone. That didn’t happen. “She took it over. It was a ‘family camera’ that no one else in the family touched,” her mother, Lisa Hutson, remembered with a smile.

Lauren loved taking pictures. She took photos of her family at home and carried the camera to school and took photos of her friends. She had been introverted, she said, but after she transferred to St. Pius X Catholic School in the eighth grade, taking portraits of other students allowed her to open up. The camera let her talk to them.

“Making pictures, what I learned is that even the most popular people I knew were insecure,” Lauren said. “I saw this as vulnerability. It opened me up to the idea that everybody goes through these things.”

She also could see how important photographs are to the people they depict. She tried hard to let her subjects present themselves as they wanted to be seen.

“Middle school girls are the most insecure people on the planet,” she said. “Seeing they were excited [by the portraits she took of them], that was such a good feeling for me. It makes my whole day when they look at these things and they love them.”

Lauren’s dad is a doctor. A couple of years back, one of his co-workers volunteered to help an African refugee family settle in Clarkston, a community in central DeKalb County where many refugees live. The refugees had no family photos; they’d been left behind when they fled their home country.

Lauren agreed to take new photos for them. “When I got [to Clarkston] for the first time, everything changed,” she said.

Lauren Hutson stands alongside some of her photos hanging on the walls of Early Learning Scholars 2, a preschool in Clarkston. (Joe Earle)

Lauren hadn’t known what to expect. She was a 15-year-old, blond suburbanite. “I had really based my cultural experience on my little suburban bubble in Atlanta,” she said.

The people she met to photograph that day were quite different from her. They were black, had been uprooted from homes on another continent, and had very little to call their own. But they welcomed her to their home. “I was blown away,” Lauren said. “The entire family I was taking pictures of, they were so kind.”

The refugee community lived in a different world than she did. “It was a kind of culture shock,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is in Atlanta and I didn’t know anything about it?’ ”

She wanted to help them. She decided to do what she knew how to do. She offered to take photos of their families. “It’s hard to assimilate into a new culture … What if I could give them family pictures to give them a sense of belonging in this country?”

With help from April Williams, director of Early Learning Scholars 2, a Clarkston preschool with a large percentage of refugee children among its students, Lauren put out the word in the local community that people who wanted new family pictures could show up on a Saturday to have their photos taken. “The families dressed up in their best outfits,” she recalled.

Lauren returned to Clarkston for more photo shoots. Each time, more refugee families showed up. She’s become the families’ photographer. She thinks it’s important to have an image of yourself that shows your best face to the world, even when you’re starting over in a strange new country.

Perhaps especially then. “People,” Lauren said, “want to be acknowledged and listened to.”

Lauren figures she’s photographed 40 to 50 refugee families and has delivered 150 to 200 framed photos to them over the past several years. The photos are her gifts. She set up a fund to defray the cost of printing and framing the pictures. To celebrate her recent 18th birthday, she asked to have a fundraiser instead of a party.

Lauren’s photos of the preschool’s students fill its walls. “She has a big heart,” Williams said.

With the contributions raised during her birthday fundraiser, Lauren plans to head back to Clarkston to take more photos. She thinks it’s important work, for the families and for her. They get a record of their family. She gets to talk to them.

“I have a theory that pictures are taken on both sides of the camera,” she said. “In formal [portrait] situations, they open up to you. I am touched every time I make a picture for one of these families. My incentive to take pictures just builds and builds and builds.”

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