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For many families, annual portraits around the holidays are a time-honored tradition. A Montana State University photography class is ensuring those memories are available to those who wouldn’t be able to afford portraits.

For its 11th year, a class in the School of Film and Photography is offering free family portraits to lower-income families from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to have their family photographed and documented. It’s a treasured memento,” said Alexis Pike, interim director of MSU’s school of film and photography and organizer of the event.

The event did not happen last year due to the pandemic.

“I’ve watched some kids grow up over the years,” Pike said. “We’ve had some families that have been there for almost every event.”

The event is traditionally held on the first Saturday in December before downtown’s Christmas Stroll and performances of the Nutcracker, allowing families to attend before other holiday events.

With Bozeman lacking a JCPenny or Walmart photo studio, Pike said, many families can’t afford portraits. She’s regularly heard of people driving to Billings to have family photos taken because there are more affordable options there.

“There’s not an inexpensive alternative (in town) and we’re not trying to take business away from the professional photographers,” Pike said.

Sessions are available by appointment only. With 45 total appointments available, there are limited slots open as of Thursday — but people interested in scheduling can contact

The department’s advanced lighting class starts organizing and fundraising for the event in mid-September, with students collecting donations and selling student-designed T-shirts. Hands On Screenprinting donates the printing of the shirts to the class.

“I was really impressed this year with the donations that student raised because going into it I didn’t know how much people would want to give given the financial stresses in Bozeman,” Pike said.

Through the fundraising, each family receives an 8x10 print, a gift card to Rocky Mountain Toy Company, an art kit for each child and provided snacks during the event. This year the students raised around $2,500, allowing families to get a $40 gift card.

“I always tell the students … by the end of the day on Saturday you’re going to be exhausted in a way that feels so good and you’ll know you’re giving back and sharing your expertise with the community,” Pike said.

The service-learning project also gives students the experience of organizing, hosting and photographing a large-scale photography event. For many of the students, it’s their first time photographing portraits of other people in a studio setting.

“Students can discover whether or not they want to do that type of photography,” Pike said.

There are even student who have graduated and gone on to create their own portrait event in other communities, Pike said.

The first year Pike and her class organized the event, she remembers a young mom and her 8-month-old baby attending. In a letter sent to the class afterward, the mom said it was the first time she had a photo taken of the two of them and how much it meant to her.

Pike said that moment “sealed the deal” on continuing it with future classes. The outreach event is a reflection of the dedicated and thoughtful students who are in the program, she said

“There will be many lives we touch who will look back on this and have that reminder,” she said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.

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