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Porch Portraits: Lockdown in Poconos

Porch Portraits: local and vacationing families portrayed in the coronavirus lockdown in Poconos.

Introduction

I’m Ed, a professional photographer of Manhattan-based Zorz Studios who moved to Poconos two years ago, commuting for work in and around NYC. I live in one of Dingmans Ferry’s communities, Wild Acres.

Elevated 1,129 feet, the community is nestled among seven lakes in the woods, surrounded by a National Park. Wild Acres is a diverse habitat and a fairly recent one, with houses’ median year built being 1983. Most of the residents moved here from New Jersey and New York. It saw several spikes in the development, including a prominent influx of Russian-speaking population from NYC that favors Poconos as one of the favorite areas for vacation houses, “dachas”.

What is Porch Portraits project about?

With some time on my hands during the coronavirus lockdown, I thought of a social project as one of the useful ways of filling the creative and purposeness voids. I decided to create a documentary in my community. As I spoke to several families, I heard stories of how differently they cope with the challenges, limitations, problems, and fear. Some feel desperate, some are hopeful, others don’t feel affected a lot. Some need encouragement and support, others came up with ways of fighting off that fear and keeping themselves sane and focused on the positives. I wanted to put together such stories, accompanied by telling portraits.

The Porch Portraits is a social undertaking so there were no fees involved. I am giving away all portraits taken.

Why did we need to do this?

For most of us, these are unprecedented times. We are making history. What is happening now will be remembered for generations to come but the spotlight, through stories and visuals, usually falls on the bigger names and localities. Communities like mine hardly get the attention so I wanted to give it what it was missing.

Preparations

I ran the idea by the community administration and received a green light. To spread the word, I then tested the waters with the admins of three local Facebook groups. Secured their support and set up this Porch Portraits project web page along with details and the signup tool. On April 20, 2020 I announced the project and people started to join.

Enjoying talking to people, I would normally visit homes and interview my subjects for such documentary. In the current social distancing situation, I collected the information online before shooting. This helped me get to know my perspective subjects and importantly, develop individual themes in advance.

With just about 15-20 minutes of shooting per family to nail a few telling portraits, I needed them to know exactly what to expect and do when I drive by. My goal was to avoid repetitiveness. For that, I called each family for a follow-up interview. We went over their answers and planned on how I can depict their story and emotions in a unique way.

The looks

I pushed the idea that this would not be a traditional family portraiture. I didn’t want it to be confused with a regular professional photo shoot. There would be no need to dress up or act. I wanted them to be true to their feelings, whether it is anxiety or optimism, struggle or cheering. These “porch portraits” would become the faces of Wild Acres, the faces of our history, the faces of humans braving through the pandemic.

Logistics

I was driving around the community on Friday and Saturday, April 24-25, 2020. I complied with the recommended social distancing guideline and only used my zoom lens to stay far. Families were still in the earshot to listen to my posing suggestions. Most were directed to stand right on their porch. In fact, that’s how the name “porch portraits” came about in the industry to begin with.

Ah, the artistic touch…

Here comes the part that some may appreciate and some — question: my editing for the artistic presentation. As mentioned, I did not want to end up with regular family portraits indistinguishable from a year or five ago, for example. I wanted the families to look at these porch portraits decades from now and hear questions: “What is going on with this picture? Why do you look like this?”

First, I thought of going black and white—daguerreotype, even—for an “archival” feel. As I was interviewing the families, however, I sensed that despite the challenges and troubles, there is a glimpse of positive, something that helps them cope with the hardship. That positive became a revelation, a surprising discovery to many. I wanted it to be illustrated. To be painted, literally. And this is what you are going to see.

Here are all 14 families, in the order they scheduled their slots.

Tatyana, Family of 5

Originally from Ukraine, Tatyana’s family lived in NYC and has owned a vacation house in Wild Acres for six years. In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic they escaped the city in March and decided to make that move permanent. I had met her through the local Facebook group—she was giving away some toddler clothes. Our youngest daughters are a few months apart so I took her generous offer. With our only income from full-time family photography business scarce for several months now, it was an appreciated gesture.

Her biggest challenge is staying inside with two kids and keeping them busy. Another one is being limited in actions such as going to supermarket, and parks. Organization, schedule, and being friendly and calm help her cope with the lockdown. Among the positives—learning school program together and spending more time together in general.

It rained during their shoot but when I hear “rain and kids”, I immediately think “puddles”!

Anna, Family of 3

Anna lives in NYC and had this summer house for many years. Along with a dog, her family consists of “three of us and a husband”. They also ran away from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic a week prior to the Porch Portraits project.

With NYC deaths over 18,000 linked to COVID-19 at the time of writing, keeping a state of normalcy when there were so many deaths each day was her main challenge. Among the positives she noted not rushing anywhere after work and learning new skills.

When asked what those skills are, cooking was named among them. As a typical busy city dweller, they usually buy prepared food or eat out. I poked fun at this new venture of hers.

Roxanne, Family of 5

Roxanne’s family lives in another area in Pennsylvania but own a house in our community. Her husband renovates it and they come here frequently to help him and take care of him. His age is in the high-risk group making everyone immensely concerned. As a result, such a mundane task as grocery shopping developed a not-so-mundane routine of disinfecting every single item they bring. Two of them wipe with Lysol, the others bring the food into the house.

One of her three sons is a high school senior. Roxanne feels devastated for him to miss his senior track season that he trained for all year in hopes of beating his father’s pole vaulting PR (pictured, 1963), not to mention missing prom and possibly graduation ceremony. At the same time she feels that these things are trivial in light of what others are struggling with. Among other notions she pointed out was seeing the best of humanity coming out in so many people while at the same time seeing the worst coming out in so many others.

As most, they feel the perplexity in believing that we should keep isolating to protect the vulnerable while at the same time understanding that the majority are struggling, and that those not working can’t pay bills and put food on the table.

Lyndsay, Family of 3

Lyndsay’s story is especially touching. She lives 10 minutes away in a neighboring community. She approached me after seeing my project announcement but asked about a first birthday session for her granddaughter. It would not fall in the scope of the Porch Portraits project because of logistic limitations but I invited them to participate as a pre-session warm up.

The baby girl was a blessing to the family arriving shortly after Lindsay’s father passed away. She’s her sunshine. When she was four months old her father passed away leaving Lindsay’s daughter a single mother at the age of 20. They had a rough past year and quarantine was not making it better.

When I arrived, I went along the porch portrait approach and aimed to depict these three generations of women, with the youngest one being their true sunshine and relief.

Egle, Family of 3

Meet Egle from Lithuania who speaks three languages fluently, along with her father and 3-year-old daughter. They live in NYC but it is their second month of lockdown in Poconos in their escape summer house.

Devoid of the regular routine, it’s hard to stay disciplined with keeping regular regime for self care, eating, and exercising. It is her 3-year-old daughter who forces her to get going. Her father found his harbor in building a garden—something my wife and I have been contemplating. Something for us to talk about besides having the girls play once the social distancing is relaxed, as they live within walking distance from our house!

Among other ways of coping with the lockdown is the piano, and its story is funny. Someone in our community gave it away with self-pickup (a common practice here when people are buying/selling/cleaning their houses). Egle jumped on the offer and tasked her grumbling father who was far from happy having to bring it in. It is he now who spends most time with it, hitting the keys at random, accompanied by all the false notes.

Leonid, Family of 1

Leonid is the father of my client whom I photographed past summer in a supercharged three-family fun with seven kids in the sunflower maze.

He’s worked for the past 60 years now without stopping while building his retirement house in Poconos for the past few years. The expected retirement came prematurely as he lost job in NYC due to coronavirus regulations and relocated to Poconos to finish his house. Not seeing his family for five weeks is a tough name of the game, especially being in the high-risk population and falling sick in the early days of self-isolation. He is the only solo subject among my Porch Portraits participants.

Hope and many good people around is what help him cope with the lockdown. His daughter asked on the Facebook group if people could get him some groceries while he stays home, and he got that delivered to the front door.

“Maybe this is after all a much needed rest.”

Ronnie, Family of 2

As I was leaving Leonid’s yard, his neighbor across the street called me out. I haven’t met Ronnie before but it was she whom I happened to offer help troubleshooting her computer via the Facebook group. Somehow she figured out who I was and thanked me, later asking if she could join the project, right on the spot.

Ronnie is in nursing. Her husband was a frontline medic on two tours in Iraq; he is paramedic now. The adequate supply of PPE for their jobs has been a major concern for them since they are both in the medical field. They find their sanctuary in working on their vehicles and gardening. Another positive thing that they are experiencing is seeing our community doing more for one another like making masks.

Veronika, Family of 7

Veronika is another community resident who I had an opportunity to work with already past fall. The season was hectic and I did not get to publishing their fun family shoot along the Delaware Water Gap. It is a shame because her family is one bunch of kindness and positivity. Her parents-in-law moved to Wild Acres permanently a few years ago while she visits them with kids.

They are now all stationed here in Poconos to wait out the quarantine. This, sadly, means separation from her own parents, sister, and grandmother far away in NYC. On the positive side, grandparents spend plenty of precious time with grandkids and watch them grow. She has time to chase after kids. They wake up to the sound of birds. She realizes what life is really about and appreciates things that matter. A recent mother-in-law’s birthday celebration was confined this year. It felt special. Grandkids put in a lot of manual labor and love like making own decorations instead of going to a party store and fear getting contaminated.

Veronika is among the numerous parents for whom homeschooling is no joke, especially with a toddler in hand who threatens to sip from her staying-sane glass of wine.

Dina, Family of 3

Dina is another Russian-speaking city dweller who lives in Staten Island—my habitat for over a decade before moving to Pennsylvania two years ago. She’s been following my work on Facebook for some time, eyeing an opportunity to work with me as a beauty photographer to meet her stylish vision. It was a pleasant surprise that we again find ourselves in the same area, albeit with our first shoot in such a restrictive status quo.

Her family had a number of cancelled events and a fun spring break overseas. As for many, daily family hikes, board games, and playing sports help filling the void.

Her 11-year-old son also keeps her attuned to the trends. Lately, they’ve been learning new moves and recording TikTok videos. A bit of wine helps, too.

Mandy, Family of 7

For Mandy, the biggest challenge during the pandemic was not being able to see her stepson since early March. They missed his birthday and Easter with him.

I invited them to do family portraits reflecting on his envisaged presence. First, we used his Easter basket which he could not receive. Second, I asked to use his framed portrait with paper hand cutouts attached so they could all stand holding their hands as a family.

It didn’t escape me that the youngest boy had some pride in his cool haircut. With the hair salons closed as non-essential businesses (a truly questionable categorization for an army of overgrown Chewbaccas around the world, I hear) I wondered who did the cut. It turned out that the siblings, not a barber, did the trick! A photo op for me.

As Mandy puts it, “Our 4 children (that are here) have become closer, our relationships have all become stronger.”

Terasa, Family of 8

Fancy that, I was lucky to witness an actual birthday! Indeed, Terasa’s birthday fell on one of the project dates so I caught her all dressed up and wearing heels. Alas, as a sign of current times, two of her grown-up children could not fly from across the country. Her daughters joined the party via the video chat on the iPad that her son is holding.

There was a piñata, singing “Happy Birthday” song, and a cake. No, THE cake! The one that her boys, 9 and 11, baked as a school project! Seeing how well her children have adapted to life’s challenges is one of positive changes Terasa has witnessed recently.

As this unique birthday passes, they’ll be back to homeschooling and working together on home improvement projects.

Kim, Family of 9

Kim is a long-time Wild Acres resident. She lives in a roomy house at the end of a serene cul-de-sac with her mother Lois and four children. Their house also had room to shelter her sister with two more kids who fled the Bronx.

This wonderful family suffered from the coronavirus the most among those I’ve met when shooting my Porch Portraits project. They lost Lois’ sister to the pandemic. She was in hospital for 29 days. Each day they prayed for a recovery but there was none to come. She passed the previous week with no closure. No face-to-face goodbye. They all met remotely from their homes on Zoom and it was a sad, surreal gathering. Now they are waiting for the pandemic to subside so they can have a proper memorial.

Challenges are ongoing. It is difficult for children to treat school work at home as a real thing. The schedule that they once kept has come to a complete halt. Even keeping up with the groceries in house is a task requiring going to a store too often, adding a layer of anxiety.

At the same time, cooking and making special foods for everyone help with coping. They are all together and safe in their sanctuary. Their complete gratefulness and appreciation of the outside world are seen as a positive change. They have learned not to take things for granted and to be thankful for what they have, be it a mental health job that Kim retained unlike many others or a family circle they can still nourish.

Jennifer, Family of 4

Losses aren’t the only harbinger of the pandemic… Jennifer, another full-time resident of Wild Acres gave birth to her baby girl two weeks before. While welcoming her daughter felt like a beacon of light, the journey there through the dark confides of coronavirus was a true challenge for her and the family.

I haven’t shot a newborn session for a while and seemed to have forgotten how tiny and fragile the newborns are! Could not stop wondering how much care and worry the new parents are experiencing nowadays. How it is now being in a hospital. Poconos area hospitals possibly did not see the amount of horror and stress witnessed by the personnel and patients in the epicenters. Yet, most people would think more than twice these days before going to a hospital for something relatively noncritical. Imagine a woman in labor having to go there…

It’s in the past now for Jennifer. She’s home with too many cuddles. No need to clean or dress up. They just spend quality time together and adore their little mirracle.

Samantha, Family of 5

And here comes the last of 14 families I visited during my Porch Portraits project, and what a charming family it is!

Their biggest challenges brought on by the pandemic have been the worry and anxiety of keeping everyone safe. With the boys’ father still working as an essential worker, it is scary making sure he is safe. When everything carried into the house needs to be sanitized, the pandemic has brought on anxiety, stress, financial struggle, challenges for the children and a sense of fear.

To cope with it all they make sure to take time together and to the children. One great thing they can take from the lockdown is time. The time they’ve gotten to spend with their children that on a regular basis in the hecticness of day-to-day life, they normally wouldn’t get to. They find themselves more able to teach them valuable lessons about caring for each other and loving one another, and the importance of talking to each other.

Conclusion

For an impromptu project without long and thorough preparation, I cannot say that every Porch Portraits photo worked out the way I described in the beginning, with a clear social subtext. I yet enjoyed every minute of working on this personal project and had my share of euphoria.

I warmly thank all families that took part in the documentary and opened up. It was lovely to see some familiar faces and as exciting to meet the new ones! I even hope to have made some friends and found playdates for our toddler.

With my photography business being the only source of family income and with a locked high schooler at home, I feel the pain and worries of many. I spared the reader of my own take on the lockdown yet my list of positives is frankly, sizable. We make the most of it. We are in this together and ought to help, not only within own families. When things turn around for the better, we’ll have even more people to shake hands with or hug.

Postscript

During the pre-shoot interviews, I was asked if I accepted donations. I initially did not want to tie any monetary considerations to the Porch Porraits not to deter any families that were hit financially. I did collect the donations and this morning, passed on to our local Delaware Township Volunteer Ambulance Corp.

And to save the sweet for last, here are the treats that two families handed to me at the end of a shoot. Major thanks, Dina and Veronika! You had no idea how much of a tea-drinker I am. These go perfectly with it, and are mostly gone by the time of finishing the article…

9 Comments

  1. Veronica says:

    Would love to be part of this project

  2. Marina says:

    Incredible!!!! Great stories and amazing pictures! До слез!

  3. Dina says:

    Dear Edik, fantastic work!!! As always you did not disappoint

  4. Michele says:

    Absolutely AWESOME!!! Thank you so much for doing this. Well done in every regard.

  5. Irene Gindel says:

    Beautiful pictures, creativity at its best.

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