Lisa Sawtelle's porch photo of the Maeder family

Front Porch Project | The Helpers Next Door

Apr 14, 2020  | 102

by Laurel Bower

As a photographer, Lisa Sawtelle enjoys following other photographers on social media. Recently, some images caught her eye, and she began to wonder how she might do something similar. What she noticed was something called the “Front Porch Project,” which has photographers nationwide taking pictures of people on their front porches during the COVID-19 crisis. Lisa shared with us why she wanted to participate in the Front Porch Project by taking photographs of individuals, couples and families in her small town of Creston, Iowa.

What did you like about the images you saw, giving you the idea to do something similar in your area?
I was really drawn to the fact that the project was documenting this time in history. Ten years from now, when we are sharing memories with our kids, grandkids and others, we can show them these photos and reflect on our experience.

It also gives the families something to look forward to during these times of social distancing and limited outings. When the photos were posted on Facebook, it brought so many smiles to my face and others’. Getting to see our friends’ faces, their kids, their dogs, while we aren’t meeting up with them face to face, is such a joy. It’s a light in the darkness.

Why did you think it’s important to document people during this crisis?
As a photographer, of course, I love documenting spaces in time, in history. “How old were the kids? Which furry family members did we have? Oh look at my hair cut! Can you believe dad wore socks with sandals then?” All of these little details that just a photograph can evoke memories of — and hopefully bring a smile to faces when so much of our media lately is not joyful.

What were your hopes with this project?
Photographers right now are considered non-essential businesses, so my studio is closed. With a bit of free time on my hands, this is a way that I could give back, bring neighborhoods together and hopefully be a little ray of sunshine when the families see their pictures.

How can photographs comfort us while documenting a time in history?
When I first drove around the countryside for these pictures, it was the first real Iowa spring day. Just taking in all the scenery: the blades of green grass, windmills in the distance, farm kids out riding bikes in their driveways (when they usually would have been in school). I was seeing all the goodness that is out there.

Each of the families that I reached out to for this project were totally on board. I loved that I was able to get shots with moms in the pictures, because as a mom I’m never in the picture. Real shots of dads still in their work clothes and crying kids — this is life. This is where we are right now.

How have people responded to your idea of doing this project locally?
People have responded so positively. I am, of course, keeping social distancing in mind and encourage people to be waiting on their front porches for me. I don’t want to be on their porches or ringing doorbells and taking unnecessary risks.

The hardest part is keeping that distance from the kiddos that are my photography clients who I usually greet with hugs, and their parents, too.

How long have you been a photographer and what got you started?
I initially started photography when I worked for a food blog as a recipe developer and photographer. When that job ended, I had a really nice camera and a few nice lenses. I wasn’t sure if I could transition from inanimate objects to people, so I asked a few friends who were having babies if they would be open to being my models. I wanted to see if I could step into newborn and family photography. After the first session, I remember telling Scott, my husband, “I love this.”

Over the last five years, it has slowly grown from a natural light setting in my dining room to a studio space in my basement — and now, people’s front porches!

The Front Porch Project was started by a photographer in New England to help document families going through these unprecedented times. Featured photo of the Maeder family by Lisa Sawtelle.