Grad student touches lives through free portrait project

A University of Manitoba graduate student is providing free family portraits for Winnipeg families while simultaneously generating a greater understanding of the immigrant community in Winnipeg.

Beibei Lu, a student in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management, began the project in 2012 for Chinese newcomers and has seen it grow to attract families from the wider Winnipeg area.

What originally began as a way for families to have free family photos taken for Christmas and Chinese New Years has now expanded to photos taken at many different Winnipeg venues, including Manitoba Start, a non-profit organization that provides support to newcomers, and the St. Avila Elementary School. The university has also embraced Lu’s project and included it in the International Centre for Students’ International Week in February.

As an immigrant from China, Lu understands the value placed on family portraits. Lu fondly remembers photos taken with her family every year at Chinese New Year when relatives traveled home for the holiday.

“For the immigrants’ community, they have made the decision to leave their home country [and] came here to have a new start. I felt a similar loneliness as them when I first got here, and a family portrait of my sweet family is what helped me most when this kind of moment came. I do believe being together is important for families [regardless of if] they are immigrant families or Canadian families.”

Upon arriving in Winnipeg, Lu became involved in many different communities and events. She joined UMSA, the GSA, the International Centre for Students, the English Language Centre and supported different publications – including the Manitoban, the Gradzette, and the Manitoban Chinese Tribune. Lu credits her work within these organizations and her understanding of the importance of family portraits for the birth of the Free Family Portrait project.

Throughout the project, Lu has been touched by the gratitude of the families and has had the opportunity to keep in touch with many of her portrait subjects. Since the event is free of charge, the families have a deep appreciation for the photos, said Lu.

“Many of them thanked me many times afterward and even asked about the details of next year’s Free Family Portrait event. Some of them became friends with me. I regard this as a meaningful part of my personal life and it makes my volunteer work more effective by helping people.”

For some participants, these family portraits are the first they have received since their arrival to Winnipeg, and it provides them a chance ­to send the photo home to relatives in their countries of origin.

The ties within the Immigrant community are evident as Lu speaks of unknown connections between her and the families that sometimes surface during the photo shoots. These ties grow stronger as new friendships between Lu and her subjects continue through the years.

“Some immigrant families that I interviewed earlier still keep in touch with me, so that I do notice their changes throughout these years. Someone got a new baby, someone got accepted to university, someone got reunited with their family members who were not here at the time I took their photo, and so on. I never noticed this kind of joy of sharing family stories until I started this project; tiny details in everyday life make for great [life-long] memories.”

A family portrait with their biological relatives may not be a reality for some international students at the U of M, notes Lu. In those cases, their university family comes together for the portrait and these photos are often sent home to share their new life with their home community.

Lu has had the opportunity to learn more about her subjects lives through the portraits. When the project began, she interviewed the families and published their personal stories alongside the photos in the Manitoba Chinese Tribune. Lu believes that this contributes to a better understanding of newcomers.

“New Canadians are becoming a big part of Canadian society nowadays. With my journalism background, I’m interested in the stories within these immigrant communities from different cultural backgrounds.”

Support from organizations in Winnipeg has been key for the sustainability of this project. Manitoba Start, St. Avila School, the U of M, and the Mandarin radio show “Hello, Winnipeg” on FM 101.5 have all shown their support for the project by either hosting the portrait event or providing an avenue to promote it.

The Free Family Portrait website features the phrase, “Every step of these families’ lives deserves to be respectfully remembered; sometimes a picture tells a lot.” Lu penned the phrase after listening to the stories of families coming to the events.

“For immigrant families, their steps in searching for a better life may be unnoticeable in others’ eyes, but this meant a lot for them,” says Lu.

“I believe that each family has their special story, no matter if it’s an immigrant family or a Canadian family. For the university community, the definition of ‘family’ will get a broader meaning. This project helped international students have their portrait done, so that they can share their new look in their university with their families back in their home countries.”

More information on Lu’s Free Family Portrait project can be found at her blog:

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.