Portraits In The Time Of Coronavirus: Shooting Free Front Porch Photo Sessions

We are living in unprecedented times. As a photographer of social events (weddings), individual, family, business portraits and sports, the recent closing of schools and the virtual shut down of our towns and cities—basically our lives as we have known it—has shut everything down.

It is a difficult time for so many and I am grateful that we are here close to family, that all of us are healthy and safe, and also grateful for the people continuing to work like first responders, grocery store workers, truck drivers, delivery services, restaurants doing carry out, and the media for helping keep us informed.

As a former newspaper photojournalist, I’ve been thinking about what I can do with my talents and also how to capture this incredibly historic time in our country’s (and our families’) history. I’ve been photographing professionally for over 35 years and have never seen anything quite like what our country and our world is experiencing right now.

I believe I found a way to do that in a safe and responsible way, following all current CDC social distancing recommendations while creating work that is important, beautiful and a gift to my neighbors.

The Project

To photograph my neighbors on their home’s front porch or through the front window of their house, while we both are applying the current CDC approved guidelines for social distancing.

I’m photographing from a safe distance using a longer zoom lens and creating an environmental portrait of each family. They receive the photographs as my gift, while allowing me to create this work and share it on my website, social networks and in printed materials.

How it Started

I went to my niece and nephew-in-law’s home last Wednesday afternoon, their two girls were sitting in their large front window. My niece stayed in, as did the girls, while Jeremy came out to give me the item I had come to collect.

But that image of the girls at the window stayed at the forefront of my mind.

It was a beautiful scene—poignant and also truly revealing of the time we are in—but I didn’t have a camera with me to photograph it. As is common for photographers, the image that “got away” gnawed at me.

I called them back and proposed that I come back to take a picture. The result is the portrait you see below.

Driving around our beautiful and quiet little town (especially quiet now), I saw the gorgeous homes and realized that I could create some really beautiful portraits of people on their front porch or in their front window, all while keeping a safe distance and respecting the CDC social distancing guidelines.

A great painting by Grant Woods called “American Gothic” came into mind, because it shows a husband and wife in front of an Iowa home. It’s always been one of my favorite paintings, and I want to create my homage to that in these photos.

Ultimately, this project started because it was a story that I felt had to be told for now and for future generations.

There is so much uncertainty and fear caused by not knowing how long this will place our lives on hold. We’re still new in town, without too many clients booked yet, but many of my colleagues have been experiencing far worse situations than me with the loss of income from their weddings. My heart goes out to them.

Personally, my sister and her husband (who live 1/4 mile from us) will not come by to visit — we visit now outside the houses with our dogs while social distancing.

My niece, her husband and their kids who live on the other side of our small town won’t be visiting until this is clear. She is a hairdresser and is not working now because of the shut downs to her industry. Her husband is still working.

My wife and two kids are home and we are social distancing from our neighbors, though we can still chat to them across the fence or from a safe distance. Luckily we are in a neighborhood where many residents walk animals at the evening or are out with family. We all practice safe social distancing.

Nothing like this has been seen in of our modern era. My photojournalism background is clear in the portraits and the drive to do this story.

For the health considerations, I have followed all the current CDC guidelines, keeping my distance and only photographing people who are healthy and have not tested positive with the COVID-19 virus.

In terms of gear, I’m taking pictures with a Sony a7R IV and an a9 II using three lenses: a 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master, a 135mm f/1.8 G Master, and a 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master. I will sometimes use a small Ikea step ladder to raise my height a bit for portraits of people in windows or to help keep the perspective of their home if I’m including the face of it in the portrait.

The project is voluntary and I am doing it pro bono. The subjects will receive the high resolution images for participating. We have talked about doing a book after we get through this time and I think it will be a time capsule for our town and what happened in March 2020 that changed the world.

This is not a project for everyone—I don’t want to either encourage or discourage anyone from doing one of their own. For now, we’ve stopped booking sessions after reaching our goal of 100 families, and have added a wait list so that we can hopefully schedule sessions when the time is right.

Here are some images that I captured before Wednesday 3/25/2020:

About the author: Paul F. Gero is a Wisconsin-based wedding and portrait photographer, videographer, author, educator and Sony Artisan. You can see more of his work and follow his “Portraits in the Time of Corona” project through his website and Instagram.