About a month after Vermont issued its stay-at-home order in late March, Hertz Hausman saw a friend who had a baby recently post professional photos on social media. That’s how Hertz Hausman learned about the Vermont Porchtraits Project, an undertaking by Paul Richardson that led him to photograph dozens of families in exchange for donations to a local homeless shelter.
Hertz Hausman and her husband, Nate, embraced the idea, and Richardson soon visited their home for a quick, socially distanced photo session that preserved this time in their lives. Between April and October, they sit on their porch nearly every day, and so do many of their neighbors. When Richardson took their photos in early May, the weather had just begun to warm and leaves had appeared on trees.
“It captures one moment in my pregnancy, and it captures one moment in the quarantine. It had a very hopeful feeling, too,” Hertz Hausman said. “There were not as many unknowns about the [novel coronavirus] at that point, and we had kind of fallen into a rhythm of how to live and how to work at home.”
Beginning in April, Richardson has traveled throughout Vermont to take portraits at the homes of 65 families. He read a news story about how the novel coronavirus affected central Vermont’s homeless population and the strain it placed on Good Samaritan Haven, the local shelter that scrambled to move guests into motels. Richardson also saw stories of fellow photographers across the United States who visited families to take photos at their homes. He thought that seemed interesting but wondered if he could somehow combine the two.
“I can't just do it for nothing,” Richardson said. “I have to have a reason. I have to figure out a way to make this benefit somebody out there because everybody's hurting.”
That thought process led to this project, through which Richardson offered portraits for families who donated at least $50 to Good Samaritan Haven. His portraits have generated about $3,300 for the nonprofit organization and another $700 for United Way of Addison County. With Vermont reopening, Richardson has eased away from the project, but families still occasionally ask to take part.
Richardson typically had two or three sessions in an evening during the spring, and they never took more than 20 minutes. He sent a few tips to the families beforehand, assuring them that even though he is calling this a “porchtrait,” the photos could be anywhere outdoors. He reminded them this should be laid-back and memorable.
Richardson, who is the president of a photography-centric marketing agency, hadn’t taken photos of people in over a month. So while the fundraising element was the project’s impetus, he said, “It was a real boon in the sense that I got to actually be out photographing people again.”
He sent the families about 12 photos afterward, and the finished products include plenty of typical family portraits. But then there are others that include dogs, cats and chickens. Some families gave a nod to their work-from-home lives by holding laptops in their photos. Others incorporated face masks, cleaning supplies, art projects and yard tools.
“Most people, they didn't have anything else going on,” Richardson said. “This was like a highlight of a day.”
Scott Weigand knows Richardson through a networking group, and he asked the Montpelier-based photographer, “How can I get you to Waterbury?” As long as a few other families participated from the town 20 minutes away, Richardson said he would drive over. Weigand recruited others to join, and in mid-April the Weigands received their first professional portraits since before 8-year-old Arya was born.
Other towns in Vermont followed similar models. Richardson had worked with United Way of Addison County, and Executive Director Helena Van Voorst reached out during the early weeks of self-isolation to tell him that a nightly event in her town of Vergennes might be worth photographing. At 7 p.m. every evening, a parade of cars participated in what was known as the Bang and Clang, where residents would drive on streets making noise with pots and pans, wearing costumes and honking horns.
Richardson told Van Voorst about his porchtraits idea, and eventually about 15 families in Vergennes wanted to take part. Richardson drove over an hour there and did them all in one day. Those donations went to United Way.
When Richardson sent the families their photos, he offered them a chance to write a few sentences about something they have learned or come to appreciate during these times.
The family with the chickens wrote: “Staying at home has taught us many lessons, some positive, some less so. But the one constant for me is how grateful I am for my home and the people I share it with.”
The mom of two young daughters said, “During this time of uncertainty I think our girls have come to realize that they will always have each other.”
In many ways, the photos reflect how families spent their time during the pandemic. Van Voorst’s 11-year-old daughter, Isabelle, was photographed in the banana costume she wore during the Bang and Clang parades. The family posed with the posters they held when the parade visited their street.
The Crawford-Stempels took a photo on their patio with everyone working on their laptops. Tanya Crawford-Stempel, the mother of two teenage sons, said they would vie for WiFi in their rural area. She is on the board for Good Samaritan Haven and a public health nurse supervisor. Both sons, one in college and the other in high school, had online classes. Their father, a high school science teacher, sometimes drove into town and taught from his car.
But for a busy family with a son usually away at college, a high-schooler who plays sports and a dad who coaches the varsity soccer team, Tanya Crawford-Stempel said, “It was just in some ways really delightful to have us all back together again.”
The Van Voorst family dressed up a bit for their session, but when Helena Van Voorst saw the photos on the front porch, she laughed and wished she had closed the windows, which were open and staggered in the background. Her husband then said, “Well, that’s kind of what it was like at the time.” And she agreed a photo that showcased the family’s reality was just as valuable.
“This is going to be a very significant event in our lives, no matter how old we are,” Richardson said. “It’s nice to have a record of that.”
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