May 5, 2020

Michigan photographer takes family portraits at a distance to lift spirits during a pandemic

Through the Porch Portraits Project, photographer Ashley Brown is bringing joy to families and capturing a moment in history, all while social distancing.

The right camera lenses allow Michigan photographer Ashley Brown to capture everyday family life from a safe distance. Photo by Kurt Kryszak of Kryszak Photography

During the COVID-19 pandemic, events such as weddings and graduations that have traditionally brought family and friends together have been postponed or canceled as stay at home orders have gone into effect across the country.

Photographer Ashley Brown and her partner, photographer and videographer Kurt Kryszak, share a studio in Bay City, Michigan. Brown decided to respond to the pandemic by doing what she does best—take photos. After putting a call out on social media, Brown began capturing this unprecedented moment in time through family portraits taken on front porches and yards. The process all takes place safely from a distance. She sends the finished and edited portraits directly to the clients through email.

We caught up with Ashley to discuss what she’s called The Porch Portraits Project and what she’s learned from behind the lens.

You can follow Ashley’s work on Facebook and Instagram. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

The Renewal Project: What inspired this project and what made you think, “This is something that I can do”?

Ashley Brown: I originally read an article about a photographer in Boston who had started The Front Steps Project, and I thought ‘what a cool idea!’ and I felt like that’s something that I could do and help. My partner Kurt and I, we’re both fully self-employed as full-time photographers, so it’s been scary because our whole household is in the same boat.

Originally I thought I want to do this because I have nothing but time right now so I might as well do something that still helps with my craft. I’m still using my camera. When I shared the article originally on my personal Facebook, I was like, “who wants to do this?” and I had a ton of support behind me.

The first person that reached out said, “Hey, I want to do this. How much are you charging?” I said, “I’m not,” and she responded “you should be.” So I decided I’ll do each photoshoot for the bare minimum. When I take photos, I’m 20 feet away with the lens that I’m using and I typically stand at the curb or the sidewalk.

How have families that have had their portraits taken responded? What’s the mood of your subjects?

I think everyone thus far has been excited. I’ve had a couple even say that “It felt like I was going somewhere today because I had to wake up, shower and get dressed up.” Kids especially seem excited to see someone different than the same couple of faces they’ve been seeing for weeks now. I have a lot of little ones try to run up for a hug. It breaks my heart that I couldn’t because some of them are clients that I’ve worked with for years and they know it’s Ashley. It just stinks because I know that they don’t really understand at those ages.

Many families told me, “This is great because it gave us something to look forward to, it gave us something to be excited about this week instead of just the same every day!”

Are you getting any sort of weird or fun photo requests?

I’ve had the typical family photos where everyone is matchy-matchy and dressed up and we also shot a couple that is getting married this summer, pending everything gets better, but they did their photoshoot in their pajamas with their coffee mugs and then they ran in the house and switched into comfy clothes and brought out a beer each and sat in their chairs in the front yard. I thought that was funny. I’ve had two pregnancy announcements already where they sent out the photos to tell their friends and family they’re pregnant.

[Read more: How to embrace kindness and gratitude in the time of COVID-19]

I’ve had a couple families where it was their little one’s birthday. I showed up and they had family make signs and they were out in the yard. It’s been different across the board with a little bit of everything.

What ways are you hoping the project evolves? Do you have any other events or types of photos you’re hoping to tackle through this project?

I would love to do that and I did post on my personal page asking for any high school seniors, girls who had their dresses for prom but they didn’t get to wear and I offered to come take photos of them in the front yard, for free. I feel like if I were that high school senior and your whole school career leads up to that and then you miss out on most things, that bums me out. So I feel the need to give back on that end and if I can make someone happy then it’s worth it to me. It’s really cool to be able to do this, but I still feel awful for those seniors that are missing out.

What advice would you give creative people, small business owners, artists, for how to adapt and help people during this difficult time?

I think it’s really important to do what you do every day. I think it’s important to not let yourself get in a routine of waking up and not having a task or a challenge for the day. It helps that my partner Kurt and I are both photographers and we live together. So we push each other and we have ideas that we bounced off back and forth. He and I are going out to do a post-apocalyptic style shoot of each other. We ordered clothing and we’re going to do Mad Max-style makeup, so we’ve had that to look forward to. Just going out and being able to mess around with different lighting and practice with each other. Of course while following all the precautions and then staying well far away from everyone.

Photographer Ashley Brown works with her partner, a fellow photographer, to capture families throughout the Saginaw, Michigan region. Photo by Kurt Kryszak of Kryszak Photography

Any final thoughts about this project: What you learned and what you hope to evolve into this summer?

That’s a hard question. I’ve enjoyed it thus far, I’ve really enjoyed meeting new families and hearing stories about how things have changed for them.The kids are just excited to see people and they have to tell me about something they did at home. I just like the interactions. I like seeing how people are living right now, from a distance, obviously.

I see this as a huge moment in history and I feel like there’s something powerful about capturing families in this state. You don’t have fresh hair and nails and you don’t have coordinated outfits because you couldn’t go out shopping for them. It’s not really your typical family photo situation at all. I think there’s something powerful to be said that people are willing to get their photos taken because they understand what this is and what point we are in our history.

Thanks so much for your time, Ashley. Stay safe and healthy!

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project