the front steps project

April 7, 2020

I remember the exact day and time when the COVID-19 crisis became real to me for the first time. 

It will probably always remain in my memory – like the moment I first heard about 9/11 – the moment the world turned upside down.

I had just returned home from picking up the kids from school and found my next door neighbour at my front door. “Have you heard the news?” she said, “They are extending March break by two weeks. The kids will be out of school until April!”

I was in disbelief. I mean, I knew about the virus that had already claimed so many in China and Italy and was slowly spreading westward across the globe. My sister, a kindergarten teacher in Taiwan, had already spent several weeks in social isolation, teaching her students remotely online. But somehow it wasn’t real until that moment. Until the life path we were on suddenly took a very unexpected turn.

I spent the entire next day, Friday, March 13, driving store to store to stock up on food and any supplies I thought we might need for the next few weeks. I didn’t realize it then but it would be the last time I would step inside a store for several weeks.

The following two weeks would go by in a bit of a surreal blur. 

In a lot of ways life would feel pretty normal until we turned on the news or scrolled through Facebook or one of the kids would ask to schedule a playdate with a friend. We slowly learned to be mindful of how much time we’d spend online and tried our best to explain what was happening to the kids and keep them busy.

As things became more real, I became increasingly anxious about my business. 

I had only just recently made the decision to permanently resign from my full time job to focus my efforts on growing my photography business. And as the slow winter season was finally coming to an end I was once again receiving inquiries about booking newborn, maternity and family photo sessions. I was coming up on my 3rd year anniversary as a business and just relaunched my website. Almost overnight new inquiries completely stopped and I had to cancel the next several weeks’ worth of bookings.  I was losing all the momentum I had worked so hard for. I felt helpless, restless and so disappointed.

That’s when I discovered the front steps project. 

Started by Cara Soulia Photography out of Boston, photographers all over North America were offering 5 minute portrait sessions to families in social isolation in exchange for a donation to a  local hospital or food cupboard. Here was a way for me to donate my time and talent so families could have a keepsake portrait of their time during the COVID pandemic while also raising much needed funds and awareness for a charity serving the most vulnerable in our community. I was so excited to get on board and was filled with such renewed purpose!

As quickly as possible I set up a website and took some promotional shots. Within a day of announcing the sessions on social media I had booked over 20 sessions – as many as I could possibly book in one weekend! I’d also raised over $1000 for the food cupboard. Finally I had something positive to hold on to!  I was the happiest I had been in weeks.

But before I could even shoot my first family, the controversy started. 

In the few days between scheduling the sessions and going out to shoot them, the province declared a state of emergency. I was contacted by several concerned photographers to tell me that they would not be continuing with the sessions because they weren’t considered an ‘essential service’ and they were worried of any possible negative attention they may receive by continuing. I believe every message was sent with good intention but some of them bordered on unprofessional and mean-spirited. 

Technically, I agreed with them. But I felt these concerns were coming from a place of unfounded fear. In my heart I knew what I was doing was bringing a lot of joy and help to others at a time when they so desperately needed it. Also, I was in no way putting anyone’s health at risk, including my own. I would photograph folks from a distance of at least 10 feet away and I was never coming into physical contact with anyone else. 

Driving around Barrhaven, standing in folks’ driveways and front yards, photographing family after family was the best I had felt in so long! 

It was great to have a camera in my hands again, to be meeting new folks and to spend a few glorious hours out of the house (and away from my kids!) I shot 13 families that first day but a forecast of 100% chance of rain showers forced me to postpone the second day of sessions until the following weekend.

Little did I realize my run would be very short-lived.

I was preparing to schedule another 20 sessions the following weekend when more news came out about the state of emergency. Too many folks were not taking social isolation seriously enough – there were reports of folks hosting birthday parties in their backyard or playing volleyball at the beach. By-law officers would start issuing fines starting at $750 for individuals and up to $10 million for corporations. 

In addition, friends were sending me warnings of messages they were seeing in Facebook groups – folks threatening to report anyone they saw providing non-essential business, including the very sessions I was offering.

The risk had just become too great. I had no choice but to cancel any booked sessions and postpone further scheduling indefinitely.

At the writing of this post, no one can say when the state of emergency will be lifted and we’ll return to something resembling ‘business as usual’ again. Even when that day comes, the economy has taken a hit unparalleled to any recession we’ve seen in decades and it will be a long time before most folks are in a position to afford luxuries like family photo sessions again.

I wish to give thanks to all the families who welcomed me to their homes to photograph them; who donated so generously to the food cupboard; who were patient and understanding when I needed to postpone their session, and; who posted words of encouragement when it was hard to know if what I was doing was still a good thing.

So many of you told me that participating in the front steps project brought a little burst of joy during a time when there wasn’t a lot to be joyful for and I can tell you that joy was felt on both sides of the camera.

All the same, I feel there is a need now, more than ever, to document what life looks like for us and I remain committed to continuing the front steps project as soon as it’s safe for me to do so. 

If you would like to have a front step portrait session, you can subscribe here to be notified by e-mail as soon as they become available again.

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