Apr 26, 2020

Lessons from the Front Steps Project

It’s been about a month since I decided to start a “little” project in my community called the Front Steps Project. I had the idea when I saw a news article that highlighted a photographer in New England who had started the project in her town. I had no idea what I was getting myself into…

Like many others, March was an emotional roller coaster for me. In a matter of days we went from, “Should we avoid our friends who have traveled recently?” to “Will we run out of toilet paper?” to “Will anyone I know die?” … in a matter of days.

If your experience was like mine, those first couple of weeks had days of feeling like you couldn’t function enough to even get out of bed and days of attempting to do ALL THE THINGS. You had thoughts like mine–“I need to call my parents and tell them not to go anywhere.” “If I take my kids to the store they will touch everything.” “I know we need to keep doing schoolwork, but I feel like we are in survival mode.” We started imagining our lives without the conveniences we became so used to enjoying… Something as simple as walking the dog now involves a level of alertness that we didn’t have to have before.

I needed something to focus on to keep my mind off of all of the “worst-case-scenario” thoughts it so enjoys visiting. I thought, “This will give me and my kids a safe, legal way to get out of the house, and it will hopefully bring some joy to families in our community.” So I enlisted a few friends to let me take some test shots of their families, I checked with the Governor’s office to make sure the project would not be breaking any rules (they said it was okay), and I put a single post out into Facebookland seeing if anyone was interested in some Front Steps photos.

What I didn’t expect was how massive the response would be! In a matter of a week, the Facebook group I had created for the project (Matsu Valley Front Steps Project) had grown to over 300 members. It now has nearly 1,000 members. I started the project as a solo-venture… but I quickly realized I would need help in order to make it a success. Some photographers reached out to me, some joined the group so I asked them if they wanted to help. Incredibly, we grew to a group of ten photographers serving all parts of our valley to make it possible for any families to get their Front Steps photos done. I’m certain there has been hundreds of dollars raised for the varying non-profits we listed, though I don’t know an exact dollar amount because I didn’t require that anyone share that information.

Over the course of these past few weeks I’ve had my shares of ups and downs while I drove around to complete strangers’ homes, taking their photos, spending hours communicating via e-mail, text, and Facebook, and spending even more hours editing photos. I will be honest that there were days that this project became a burden to my family and I… But burdens can be blessings. It wasn’t a burden I regretted taking on. And I know that there have been some lessons I’ve learned and I hope my children have learned through this process.

Lesson #1. Serving people serves you.

I really didn’t anticipate the impact that these photoshoots would have on the community. I didn’t really quite understand why I was receiving so many praises like, “Thank you so much for doing this.” or “It’s really amazing what you guys are doing.” All this time, what I’ve been doing hasn’t felt like anything amazing. If I were going to say that anything about this has been amazing, it has been all of the wonderfully brave, creative, inspiring families who have allowed us to share their joyful, hilarious images with the rest of the community.

I never know what to expect when I pull up to a house–is it going to be a family with eight kids, costumes, and a crazy dog or a quiet couple who is camera shy? Each encounter is a new adventure and a new discovery. I feel like I’ve been getting to know the whole of this valley one precious family at a time. Despite the wide variety in their personalities, I have been met with nothing but kindness, generosity, and gratitude–wow. What a gift to get to be your photographer.

This has also blessed my kids in ways I wasn’t expecting. In such an uncertain time it has been especially confusing for our children. They struggle to really understand why they can no longer see their friends, why they’re not allowed to visit the stores and restaurants, or why they can’t even play at the playground. For my kids to get to drive to your homes and watch from the car and see normal families with smiles on their faces, giving each other hugs, being silly and having fun… it has been a balm to their little uncertain hearts. Through you they’ve been able to see that the world isn’t actually falling apart. They’ve seen that most people are actually doing alright.

Lesson #2. People need each other.

I can’t even count how many times I’d get out of my car and be greeted first by a child. They might come bounding out with their parents hollering, “Don’t get too close!!” or they migh be shyly staring from a distance, but I believe the same is true for all of them–they’re the first ones out the door because they are craving human interaction.

Another thing I’ve heard a lot is apologies for the amounts of energy kids have and then it’s followed by, “it’s just been so long since they’ve seen anyone outside of their family.” I have a feeling it isn’t just the kids who feel the same level of excitement over a visitor–they just haven’t learned to temper it as much. 😉 I know this because, even as an introvert, my brief interactions with all of the families have been so life-giving for me. To talk face-to-face with someone. To share in the same experience of sunshine, rain, wind, or shade… to laugh together about a rambunctious puppy… We are made to experience life together and I love how this project has given us a way to not only bring laughter and joy to others, but to show how we’re all in this together. You on your porch and me on mine… I know, you know, we know. Collectively we’re getting through this together.

Lesson #3. Photography is powerful.

I don’t really think this is mind-blowing news to anyone, but I certainly haven’t ever experienced the power of photography on this level before. In our digital age where photos are a dime a dozen and snapping photos on our smart phones happens multiple times a day, we can forget how incredibly impactful a single image can be.

These front steps photos have had and will continue to have an impact for years to come. They’re bringing a sense of joy and hope in the now, but later on down the road when we come back to them, it is these photos that will paint the picture of our memories of this time together. How powerful is it to remember it as a time when we were together? When we hugged? When we laughed and made silly faces together? I have no doubt many of us have some major trials that will forever taint the memory of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic… but I’m so thankful that everyone who participated in this project will at least have a few photos to look back on and remember a time where they also smiled.

Many people have told me, “Every day I look forward to getting on Facebook and seeing the new photos in the group.” Isn’t that amazing? Many of them are complete strangers… we are looking forward to seeing the faces of complete strangers on their front steps. But that is the amazing thing about it–they are becoming not-strangers. They are our community, our brethren, in an invisible battle we are all enduring. That’s why I say it is the families who are the heroes of this project–putting themselves out there, letting themselves be seen, in an effort to bring us all together.

Lesson #4. You value photography.

The last thing I’ve observed from this whole experience is just how much photographs mean to people. People have gone to great lengths to get their family members together and ready for these photoshoots. Some families spent hours I am sure, curating home-made costumes and props. Many people ordered personal t-shirts or matching t-shirts, shoes, and hats. For many of them, this was the first time they’d had a family photo in years, or ever. I think what is happening in our world right now is pushing us to revisit what truly matters, to make time for photography.

You’re staring your mortality in the face. You’re slowing down and noticing. Noticing the changes, noticing the growth in your kids, noticing your family’s worth. You’re looking back on history more–on your ancestors and what hardships they went through. What they lived without, what was important to them. You’re recognizing the level at which you connect with those family members of old through something as simple as a photograph, and you’re deciding to give that gift to those who will come after you.

I started out this project in hopes of keeping myself and my kids busy and our minds off of the negativity, hoping to lift some fellow-spirits in the process… What I’ve gained from it is far greater than I ever imagined–an impact so poignant, I will forever be changed by it.

I hope these lessons can encourage someone else and cause us all to pause, to think about serving others a little more… to value our human connections, to recognize the power of a photograph shared, and to invest our time and our money in the things we truly value.

If you live in the Matsu Valley and would like to take part in the Front Steps Project, you have until May 2, 2020 to sign up here: www.anchor-photos.com/front-steps

Then go over to Facebook and join the group Matsu Valley Front Steps Project.



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