“It feels like the world has stopped, doesn’t it?”
In introducing the GoFundMe campaign for the Front Steps Project on March 18, Needham photographer Cara Soulia conveyed the extreme disruptions to daily life since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Soulia missed capturing happy moments that she hoped were still occurring behind closed doors since families, friends, and neighbors had heeded the call to socially distance from one another. Then a friend proposed a way – however briefly – to elevate this time of isolation into a positive experience.
What if, public relations consultant Kristen Collins wondered, Soulia photographed fellow Needham families in front of their homes to capture this unique time in American history? In lieu of payment for a digital file, the recipient would be asked to make a good faith donation to the Needham Community Council, which provides short-term, emergency assistance of a nonmedical nature and programming for all ages.
Soulia, owner of Cara Soulia Photography in Needham, posted a sample image of her own family online on March 17, along with a form that fellow residents could submit to request their own snapshot. Within 24 hours, she received nearly 100 responses.
Among those were offers from fellow Needham photographers Topher Cox and Caitrin Dunphy to join the initiative, which Soulia accepted. Since that time, Collins estimates she coordinated 450 photo shoots for the team of photographers, each of whom remained approximately 10 feet away from their subjects. The sessions stopped on March 24 after Governor Charlie Baker issued the stay-at-home advisory.
The cumulative donation benefiting the Needham Community Council is continually rising. At last count, 348 GoFundMe donors raised $22,779 – including a $500 matching donation from Collins honoring Needham residents who are teachers, doctors, nurses, and first responders.
For the photo of her own family, which graces the GoFundMe page, Soulia said she set up a tripod, bribed her three children with candy, and joked with her husband as they stood in front of their steps that they had to look good in case the image went viral.
“I didn’t put a ton of forethought into it,” Soulia recalled. “I didn’t ask the kids to change their clothes. I don’t even remember if I brushed my hair.”
And that, Soulia and Collins say, is exactly the point.
“Want to stand outside in your pajamas and slippers? Sounds good to me,” Soulia explains on GoFundMe. “Kids in mismatched clothes but you’re thrilled they got dressed? Fantastic.”
While some families are impeccably styled in complementary color palettes, other photos demonstrate their range of experiences and personalities. For example, the patriarch of the Huntington family dressed as Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. Shayna Seymour of WCVB’s “Chronicle,” her husband Stephen Carr, and their two children wore cozy slippers. There is at least one shot of a bawling baby, a reassuring reminder to parents that all moments are indeed Instagramable.
As the project progressed, the imagery evolved. On a warm Friday evening, Soulia captured a group of neighbors socially connecting from lawn chairs measured precisely 6 feet apart. At Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham, she photographed nine physicians in scrubs and face masks observing social distance precautions outside the emergency department.
School Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst joined Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick on the steps of Town Hall. A snow flurry softly framed a lone police officer at the entrance of the Needham Police Department. Postal worker Charles Hamos walked his final mail route with latex-gloved hands after 33 years on the job.
“This feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done with my photography,” Soulia said. “The goal was to become more connected with my community, but bringing a ray of light into people’s day has been amazing.”
It’s a sentiment that Soulia and Collins welcomingly extended by providing tips to others interested in starting their own version of the initiative to benefit their communities.
More than 200 photographers nationwide – as well as from Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Poland – have responded by posting nearly 25,000 of their own images to Instagram using #TheFrontStepsProject and reporting nearly $500,000 in donations to local causes such as food pantries, other food-related nonprofits, and restaurants.
“So many other people are documenting the horror of this historical moment in time,” Collins said. “I’m so proud that we’re documenting it with joy.”
Cindy Cantrell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.