Back in early March, Philadelphia-based photographer Jared Gruenwald was not so sure how, if at all, his job would be impacted by the spread of COVID-19. As a commercial photographer, he naturally abides by the “six feet” rule recommended to stop the spread of the virus.
“By default, I was already sort of engaging in social distancing,” he told HuffPost over the phone on Tuesday. “I don’t need to be right near you when I’m shooting portraits. So, I was like, ‘We’re in a 600-foot studio, I’ll still be able to do this.’”
But as the world began to better understand the coronavirus’s severity and impact, and when schools began closing and clients began canceling sessions scheduled as far out as the summer, he quickly realized he was wrong.
“I literally have no career at this point ― everything was shut down,” he said.
Gruenwald began working as a photojournalist but pivoted to commercial work to earn more money roughly six years ago when he started his family. But along with his commercial jobs, he explained to HuffPost that he had also always maintained various side projects to satisfy his craving for more creative work. Now, with his paid work stalled, he was ready to try something new.
After seeing a friend’s post on Facebook about having to use mannequins in lieu of models for photos, someone threw out the idea of finding “window models” ― or people who would pose in the windows of their homes ― instead. That’s when an idea struck.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I can still shoot portraits, I can still engage with people,’” he said. “I’m just going to drive to my friends’ houses, honk my horn and [when they come to their windows], just start shooting. I can engage with them, check in on them and stay busy.”
Over the past month, Gruenwald has captured dozens of loved ones at their front doors and on their porches. The photos relay a variety of emotions but the overwhelming feeling that blankets the project is one of resilience.
“We’re city-dwellers, we don’t have these sprawling escapes to stretch our legs and none of us are used to being shut down in a box,” he said. “We all live in row homes or tiny apartments where we’re used to being around tons of people. I thought it was going to be a lot harder on everybody. Just going around and seeing how resilient people were ― how smiley and happy and hopeful everyone was still trying to be ― that was big for me.”
The project inspired other, unexpected results, too. For example, when he photographed his friend Jaquan Fields, who, when there isn’t a pandemic, performs as Quany the Clown at events throughout Philadelphia.
“I thought it would be really interesting to see how he’s coping with this, because he can’t perform,” Gruenwald said. “A clown without an audience is one of the saddest things I can imagine, and when I called him he seemed pretty down. One of his big jobs outside of birthday parties and events is performing at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia a couple of times a week, entertaining sick kids, kids recovering from surgery. It’s a big part of what he does, so losing that was really kind of devastating. I wanted to give him an opportunity to put the makeup on and meet me outside.”
When Gruenwald arrived, he discovered that while Fields was transforming into Quany, he was broadcasting on YouTube, which he hadn’t done before.
“People watching were like, ‘You know what? Why don’t you do weekly performances on YouTube?’” Gruenwald said. “And he’s doing that now. I think, not that I inspired him, but just having him put the makeup back on I think led him to this other way he can get out there.”
The portraits have offered Gruenwald a way to maintain connection and intimacy with his community, but he hopes they also send out a message to anyone who encounters them.
“It’s about how we got through [the pandemic] ― what we did to survive,” he said. “The portraits are very basic, but just showing where we are, how we’re all just still here and we’re gonna be here. And it’s something we can get through. Whether you’re smiling or sad, you’re still there, staying connected.”
The project has also reignited a passion in Gruenwald that he plans to carry with him long after the lockdown has ended, which he hopes serves as a reminder that life is too short not to do the things that fuel you.
“I missed the hell out of this ― being in the streets, meeting people and shooting them,” he said. “I am making sure I don’t lose sight of the things I used to do.”
As for what he’s looking forward to doing once this is all over? “I’ll probably just go around to everyone who participated in my project and give them a big old hug,” he said. “I want to see them ― and maybe go have a drink at my favorite bar with all my friends.”