Say the word “zoom” today, and most people will think of the online meeting platform that became an overnight sensation during the COVID-19 crisis.
But some local photographers are reclaiming the term as their own. Armed with zoom lenses, they are focused on hundreds of Wilton families and aiming to raise significant money for charity at the same time.
The Front Steps Project was launched by two Boston-area women on March 17. When the coronavirus outbreak prompted stay-home orders, their idea was to take photos of families on the front steps of their homes, while keeping a safe distance. In lieu of payment for photographs, they requested a donation to a local charity.
As the idea went viral, more photographers joined in, and eventually a loosely-organized national campaign resulted. Tagging their work with the #FrontStepsProject hashtag, photographers all over the country worked with the same objective: to shoot family portraits outside, while maintaining a safe distance, in exchange for donations to a local charity.
Fueled by media attention from CNN, “Good Morning America” and other television and print media, the project has reportedly raised over $500,000 for food banks, hospitals, animal shelters, and other causes.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with three Wilton photographers about their participation in the effort.
Xenia Gross is the owner of Xenia Photography and has lived in Wilton for eight years. Her approach to photography has always been what she calls “honest family documentary”: helping people remember the fleeting moments and everyday acts that can easily change or be forgotten as time goes by.
As the pandemic set in and Gross observed many residents taking action, she said to herself, “I’ve got to do something! I can’t sew, but everyone has something they can do.” When she heard about the Front Steps Project in a trade publication, she knew she had found the right fit.
Initially, Gross was unsure how many people would really be comfortable with her coming to their homes. She had also heard that some photographers were not in favor of the project, questioning whether it was consistent with “stay at home” orders. But after careful consideration, Gross decided to proceed, and within 24 hours, she had received interest from over 100 families.
Her safe distance is far beyond six feet. “I’m so cautious! I stay at the edge of the driveway. I have a great lens that’s perfect for far away.”
It became clear to Gross that these brief photo sessions were not business as usual. “Usually, I get to know my customers. I call them by their names, I know something about the kids.” But with no initial meetings or chatty introductions, Gross simply had to adapt. “I think this has made me a better photographer, and a better instructor,” she said, referring to how she normally gives instructions to her subjects during a shoot.
“I like to think these photos aren’t just snapshots,” Gross said. Many of the families she photographed were prepared with creative ideas, such as signs they made, carefully planned outfits, and interesting themes or props (a chainsaw, pizza flour, and yoga poses, just to name a few). “They put a lot of thought into it. Everyone was so excited. Kids were following directions, even the teenagers weren’t annoyed.”
Gross described her experience as “very fulfilling.” In exchange for her photos, she requested customers make a donation to either the Woodcock Nature Center, Wilton Food Pantry, or Person-to-Person.
Tiffany Shelton, a professional photographer for over 20 years and owner of RSKS Photography, has lived in Wilton for about seven years. Her daughter attends Create Learning Center, a Wilton preschool with a close-knit community where Tiffany feels particularly connected.
Since COVID-19 has forced schools to close, the preschool is experiencing great financial difficulty. Shelton says many parents have been working hard to support the school and its owner, Sharon Cowley. A group called “Friends of Create Learning Center” established a GoFundMe page to publicly appeal for assistance.
When Shelton saw the Front Steps Project on the news, she thought it would be a great way for her to help fundraise for CLC, but also to “give a gift to other moms” of children at the preschool.
Word-of-mouth about Shelton’s photos quickly spread outside the CLC community, so there is now a broader base of families making donations, something Shelton is very pleased to have accomplished.
In addition, she says, “it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of this. It’s amazing just how much of my community I have gotten to know, even some of my own neighbors.”
Despite the distancing measures, Shelton believes a certain stillness is enabling deeper connections in the community. “That mini-conversation that takes place across the yard… normally there’s no time for that. But right now, people are still, and able to absorb everything in the moment. There’s no rush.”
Shelton believes she may be different from other Front Steps Project photographers. “I approach it more like the Family Portrait Project,” where the setting is not necessarily the steps. “We may find a better spot in the yard, or by a fence.”
The key, she emphasizes, is maintaining distance. “I use a long telephoto lens,” she explained. “I can be 30 or 40 feet away, or more. And people are ready when I get there. I don’t have to ring the doorbell. It’s working really well.”
Shelton expects to continue her efforts “until everything opens back up.” At that point, she believes the friendships she has made during the project will really flourish. “I see a lot of playdates in the future!”
On March 29, when Priscilla Babchak made her photography offer to the Wilton 411 Facebook group, she wasn’t necessarily joining the Front Steps Project. She simply had the idea to do what she loved (photography) and provide families a way to “capture the memories” of this unique and historic time, especially, she said, “the people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to hire a professional photographer for a family portrait”.
Priscilla is a 2008 Wilton High School graduate who grew up here, along with her 3 younger sisters. Although her sisters are all in their twenties now, they have all, for various reasons, come home to stay in Wilton during the pandemic. To be living together as adults is something Priscilla feels is a bit unexpected and quite special.
She imagined many other families felt the same way, suddenly having people in the house who wouldn’t normally be there, such as college students or young adults, parents who commute or travel for work, or perhaps an older relative who couldn’t manage as well on their own under these circumstances. She knew this presented a rare opportunity for some families to actually be together for more than just a holiday or family vacation.
“It was something I could do, and [my sessions] were free, just to bring smiles and joy to people. I really believe photos are so important for capturing memories, the moments in time. When you look at a photo, the feelings come flooding back.”
One important difference between Priscilla’s work and the Front Steps Project pertained to fundraising. Priscilla was not asking for donations to a cause. Instead, as she explained in her Wilton 411 post, her photos would be free, with the intention to “spread a little cheer” and “bring smiles to faces” at a time when residents were feeling frustrated, fearful or stressed during the pandemic.
Though she marveled at the many wonderful people she encountered, one couple seemed to really stand out: Gloria and Bob Bass (see photograph at top). “I think they were a little nervous at first,” Priscilla said. “They were very worried about the virus.”
Even though she remained outside, and kept a safe distance the entire time, Priscilla understood their anxiety. “I’m so humbled that people like Gloria and Bob allow me to their homes. I felt such a level of trust,” she said.
In her conversation with Bob and Gloria, she learned Bob was a Korean war veteran who grew up in Wilton. He shared some stories from Wilton’s past. Gloria offered Priscilla extra yeast when they discovered their shared interest in baking bread.
“My favorite memories will be the conversations that took place after the photographs. I’m so happy I’ve been able to meet such wonderful people who I never would have met otherwise.”
To learn more about these photographers and book a Front Steps photo:
Xenia Gross: www.xeniaphotography.com
Tiffany Shelton: www.rsksphotography.com
Priscilla Babchak: www.crazylovecreative.com