All in the Family

As a photographer particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, he found he had plenty to shoot at home

As a freelance commercial photographer in Washington, D.C., I’m often working in office locations photographing men in power suits or shooting magazine stories of “real people” for their 15 minutes of fame. And I’m used to roaming, looking for projects to shoot on my own. But in July, the way I’ve always gone about my life and work careened to a halt when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer. Four weeks later I was in surgery having a lobectomy; two-thirds of my left lung was removed. Following three months of chemotherapy, my current prognosis is essentially “cured,” though for the next five years I will be undergoing CT scans and monitoring any recurring health issues. As I regained my strength, I gradually worked my way back into my routines. And then came the coronavirus.

My wife, Melissa, and I were just getting settled in as empty nesters when the global pandemic hit. Our four kids, two each from our previous marriages, were forced back home from college. For me and my compromised lung capacity, catching the virus could have potentially devastating complications. To stay safe and healthy, I was self-quarantined at home (like most people in the District) with limited possibilities to work outside our home. During this time of compromised health, social isolation and daily monotony, I passed the time like everyone around me — bingeing Netflix, doing puzzles and cooking tasty dishes — but I eventually returned to a habit near and dear to me: my family photo shoots.

Taking pictures of our kids is something we all do as parents, but producing true photo shoots of your kids is a whole other project. Shoots are happenings, a time engaged with your kid to create imagery that’s arresting, memorable, creative and fun. And stuck inside, I wanted to find a way to bring the outside into our home. My two kids and Melissa’s knew one another growing up, so when we all moved in together 12 years ago, family photo shoots were as normal as dinner parties. The kids were all good sports, by and large, and we created a bunch of unusual photo experiences. Our house is in an alley next to auto body shops and back doors to bars and clubs, and that backdrop gives us some rich locations and textures to work with.

When we decide to shoot, I tell them to pick out something to wear. By now they know exactly what that means: Find something cool, bizarre, edgy or just plain weird. Sometimes a shoot is not about the wardrobe, but driven by a prop one of us has found, or by funky lighting. While they’re getting ready, I’m grabbing my camera equipment, putting lights on stands, running extension cords or blocking out an idea. I’m the director, crew and co-conspirator.

When the kids were younger, photo shoots were a chance for them to be free, to experiment, even be goofy. As they’ve gotten older, though, I’ve felt more pressure to make them look good, to give them something worthy enough to post on social media.

Heading toward the summer, as a photographer I want to be working in the city, meeting new people on assignments, doing my job again. This global pandemic has shattered and hijacked so many people’s lives, but as a father at this difficult time, it’s given me back something I love and have missed: that deep connection — and chance to work again — with my favorite subjects.

Arrington turns to inside Roller Derby fantasy to exercise and relieve boredom. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
Arrington Peterson: Arrington, 21, turns to indoor roller derby to exercise and relieve boredom.
Aidan Caldwell: Unable to skateboard through the city, Aidan, 23, hangs out on our roof in his tent.
Aidan Caldwell: Unable to skateboard through the city, Aidan, 23, hangs out on our roof in his tent.
Stella was the kind of kid who liked to setup a little office in her closet, or fall asleep in a boxÑanything to carve out her own space. When not studying journalism in college, Stella can be found under the stairs. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
Stella Peterson: Stella, 18, was the kind of kid who liked to carve out her own space.
Being outside is so important to Celia, who loves yoga and running. Our rooftop is an excellent escape from the inside chaos for her. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
Celia Caldwell: Being outside is so important to Celia, 20. Our rooftop is an excellent escape for her.
My parents moved from Chevy Chase to Capitol Hill to be closer to their grandchildren. These days it feels like they live in another city. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
Don and Barbara Peterson: The photographer’s parents moved to Capitol Hill to be closer to their grandchildren, but these days it feels as if they live in another city.
Melissa is a special-ed teacher for the District Public School System and has had to create home office spaces to do her work. Her children are Aidan Caldwell, 23, and Celia Caldwell, 20. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
Melissa Duane: A special-ed teacher, Melissa has had to create home office spaces.
David with camera: His children are Arrington Peterson, 21, and Stella Peterson, 18. (D.A. Peterson/FTWP)
David Peterson: A self-portrait. The photographer was getting back into his routines after completing chemotherapy for lung cancer, but then came the coronavirus.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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