Casey Chapman-Ross’s Photos Capture Moments of Joy During Pandemic
The photographer launched her Porch Portrait Project during Austin’s stay-at-home period
By Aaron Parsley
Photographs by Casey Chapman-Ross
Staying home during this shelter-in-place period is challenging for many Austin residents, especially those with children who are out of school and missing their friends. The unexpected ways people are coping, innovating and, in some ways, thriving can be wonderful to witness as we look for silver linings amid a global tragedy that’s taking a toll in our country and in our city. Casey Chapman-Ross, a mom and freelance photographer in Austin, is sharing her experience holding down the fort with her husband, fitness trainer and massage therapist Will Ross, and their three children, Liam, 10, Logan, 7, and Zoey, 2. Chapman-Ross, whose work includes True to Form, a collection from Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate run, and a coloring book called I Am an Activist! that promotes civic engagement in children, has launched the Porch Portrait Project since Austin’s stay-at-home order came down from Mayor Steve Adler. In this series, she is photographing families from a safe distance as they gather together on their front steps or in their yards. We spoke with Chapman-Ross about her life at home, the challenges and unexpected joys that come with it and turning to a creative passion to find happiness in small and large doses. See a selection of her recent images in our gallery below the Q&A, check out her Instagram @caseychap for more and learn more about the Porch Portrait Project – or sign up your family – on caseychapmanrossphotography.com.
How are you, your family and your neighbors doing during Austin’s shelter-in-place period?
My family and I are really fortunate to have a comfortable home and groceries. Although both my husband and I are almost entirely out of work right now, we have a loyal client base that we feel confident will come back with time. The hardest part for us right now is not knowing how much time this will go on and also trying to explain to our younger kids why they can’t play with their friends out in the neighborhood. Our kids are used to running back and forth between houses with friends and, especially with my youngest, it’s very sad and hard to explain that all of the sudden one day she can’t come near anyone else. I really wonder how this might affect her and my other kids long-term.
What are the challenges of staying home so much more than usual?
Our main challenge over the last six weeks has been trying to get in a groove with everyone having such different needs. My husband and I both love working and we have been focused to find ways to adapt our streams of income. But in the meantime, we have a fourth grader and a first grader with distance learning and playtime needs, as well as a 2-year-old that’s potty training and constantly on the move. So, our days and nights are very full right now.
Are there unexpected joys or opportunities that come with spending more time at home?
Of course! There are so many things to be thankful for during this time and sometimes it’s easier to see than others. Some days the schedules, assignments, fears and needs of everyone (myself included) are so overwhelming that it tends to blind us of anything else. And other days I wake up and I’m able to choose a new perspective, slow down a little and appreciate the time together more. It’s an emotional roller coaster and we are learning how to anticipate and adapt as a family as more days go by.
How are your kids handling it?
I’d say they are handling it well considering the circumstances. They too have good days and bad days that have included plenty of crying and screaming fits over not being able to play with friends or frustration with distance learning but also plenty of silliness, laughing, giggles and playing. I’m proud we are making the best of a tough time as a family.
Tell us about the Porch Portrait Project.
Back in mid-March, I started seeing stories about photographers using their talent during this unique time in history to document families staying home. I lean towards family portraits that are more natural and real anyway, so this opportunity really spoke to me. Not only do I need to make a living to support my family but selfishly, I need an outlet and a purpose in order to maintain my mental sanity. I began practicing with some families on my street and absolutely loved seeing how each family looked just a little bit different while all going through this experience together. The response was overwhelming and supportive with over 200 people signed up on my site!
My preference with this project is of a more candid nature. Kids are learning to ride bikes, or throwing tantrums or both, people bring out all of the family pets, scooters and generally seem to appreciate the candid nature of the project too and the importance of showing the reality of the situation.
After practicing with my neighbors, I decided it was definitely a project I would enjoy doing but decided to take three weeks off to gather community feedback on the appropriateness of the project and focus on my family and documenting our experience. I think this time has been valuable in learning new techniques, exploring ways to work with natural light and an extraordinary time in documenting my own babies as they experience the shelter-in-place of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and supportive with more and more sign ups by the day! In moving forward with portraits out in the community I will be honoring social distancing by keeping at least ten to twenty feet away from the subject by standing in the middle of the street or across the street and also wearing a mask. Although I think this project is so important in bringing families joy, encouraging and applauding them for staying home and documenting this historic time, nothing is more important than recognizing the safety measures we must take to keep our community healthy.
Many people are anxious and overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty right now. You seem to find joyful moments through a creative pursuit. Was that a conscious decision or just your nature?
Oh, make no mistake! I am also overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty right now, but finding a creative pursuit has definitely helped take my mind off of worry and go in a positive direction instead. I’ve been able to find joyful moments, but we have also experienced a lot of emotional highs and lows as a family. My nature is to adapt and constantly explore new ways to support my family with a career in the arts. I think it’s healthy for us all to find a project that brings us happiness during this uncertain time.
Any advice for people at home on starting a creative project right now?
Having a sense of purpose is very helpful in passing the time and not feeling so helpless and out of control. No one knows when this will end or how things will look when it does and furthermore if it will return again in the future. All we can focus on is today (or this week) and finding ways to be productive, helpful, community-oriented people.
How will you look back at this time when it’s all over?
I have no doubt we will look back on this time as one of the most challenging and the most rewarding in our immediate families’ time together but the absence of our extended family, grandparents and friends has never been so difficult. It’s just mind-blowing to me how almost overnight things changed on a dime. We didn’t know the last time we hung out with friends or hugged our family would be the last physical contact with them for months on end without a clear end in sight. Although the absence of these things has caused us great sadness, it has also taught us never to take those tight hugs for granted and to more deeply cherish our time spent together. I will always give hugs as I did before – I’m a hugger! But I will probably wash my hands and arms more often afterwards.
Barbara Chapman drops off groceries and a casserole, and her grandkids flock to the door. We cracked the top of the screen so they could hear each other and the kids all yelled, “We miss you!” I loved how their silhouettes all stood side by side and the hands touching through the glass really became the focal point.
My first round of porch portraits took place on my street and these are some of our best friends, the Hedenbergs. Unless I’m asked to do a “traditional” shot, I prefer to let people fall into place where they will.
My daughter assists me on the shoots in our neighborhood and always brings her personal style and attitude. She carries a walking stick both for fun and, I think, to potentially poke people that may get within six feet of her personal space. Here she walks down a quiet street that’s usually littered with kids playing in the evening. She’s a force to be reckoned with and hopefully a photographer in the making.
As my youngest was digging around in the dirt I noticed our cat, Max, approaching. I quickly grabbed the shot as Max stood up like a curious meercat! I love symmetry in my images, so I intentionally captured the fence and bamboo supports exactly parallel to the frame.
What I love about meeting people at their homes is that all – and I mean ALL – the family pets come out to be a part of the shot. The Lara family’s guinea pigs are such a big part of the family that even Saba the dog snuggles up alongside them for the photo.
My daughter is learning to sew and practicing her first face mask, which is unbelievable for me to think about. She’s learning on a starter machine that teaches beginner threading and uses yarn, which won’t likely hold up. But her intention of giving and contributing is outstanding and the light on her little focused face is the best.
During the five-minute porch portrait with the Owen family Instacart joins the party. With a mask and gloves the delivery person carefully sets the groceries on the curb. We had a good laugh at a sign of the times, while recognizing the good fortune of being able to use companies like Instacart and HEB curbside in order to stay home.
Evening walks, bike rides and waving at neighbors from a distance helps end the day on an upbeat. The Ross kids head out on an evening walk with their older brother leading the way. The low sun sneaking that one little beam through the houses across the stretch of road they were crossing became a powerful representation of hope.
Texas, rainbows and tutus pretty much says it all! This sweet 3-year-old in the Murphy family plays in her driveway every evening with her easel, sidewalk chalk or riding toys. She is always waving at passers-by.
The morning light on their little faces during distance learning, the long light of the window reflection on the table, alongside remnants of the day before; ping pong ball, Elsa doll and Legos all made for a pretty picture of a moment of Zen among an otherwise chaotic house.
The Warnken family poses for their porch portrait with their son who is Skyping in from college.
Instead of offering safari tours through the property, the Exotic Resort Zoo in Johnson City has opened the trail up to visitors to tour from their own vehicles in April. My kids loved this escape from the day-to-day to feed and pet amazing animals along the trail. The buffalo, although they blocked our tour for a good ten minutes, were their favorite, along with the tiny baby deer.