The Front Steps Project: Photographer Cara Soulia ’96 sparked a global movement that raised more than $3 million for charity
It was an unseasonably warm March evening in Needham, Massachusetts, and people were outside enjoying the weather. Still in the very early stages of the COVID-19 isolation that was thrust abruptly upon the world, neighbors were catching up from across their yards, socially distanced by a responsible six feet, as kids waved to their friends from afar.
Cara Soulia ’96 had nearly 30 families to photograph that night, and her trusty apprentice (her 11-year-old daughter) was operating the GPS and helping to navigate the most efficient route through town. They pulled up to their next appointment to find a handful of people sitting in lawn chairs appropriately spaced out. “This is great,” Soulia said, asking them to stay where they were while she retrieved a different camera lens from her car.
“They seemed a little bit confused, but they were very cooperative and friendly, and the scene perfectly captured this strange moment in history during the pandemic,” Soulia said. “It was such a statement about our society right now—that we’re in this together, and that even though we have to be six feet apart, we’re still here for each other; we’re still going to make it work somehow.”
After she’d taken the picture and explained that she had to wheel off to shoot the next family, the affable lawn chair loungers asked her what in the world she was talking about. It turns out she was at the wrong house.
This comical misunderstanding was only one example of the new connections Soulia would make in the coming weeks, as what began as a modest local fundraising effort, The Front Steps Project, exploded into a global viral sensation with photographers around the world helping to raise millions of dollars for charity.
Soulia, a photographer who primarily specializes in photographing families and children, says the idea initially came from her friend and business partner, Kristen Collins, who suggested documenting families who are enduring the tribulations of school closures and remote work on the front steps of their homes in Soulia’s hometown of Needham.
In exchange for taking family photos, people were encouraged to donate to the Needham Community Council, a nonprofit that provides support for underserved families.
“We started with a fundraising goal on GoFundMe of $1,000, and I wasn’t sure if we’d even reach that goal,” Soulia recalls. “I advertised the project on Instagram and Facebook, and within the first 24 hours we had around 100 families sign up, so we lifted the fundraising goal to $5,000, then to $10,000 and ultimately we raised more than $50,000 for the Community Council.”
The growth was so immediate and unexpected that Soulia needed to ask some other photographers in the area to help out. Her team eventually shot 850 images of Needham community members.
Within a few days of the project launching, a local NBC affiliate had caught wind of it and interviewed Soulia, then CNN featured it on their webpage, using the image Soulia had accidentally taken of the people sitting in their lawn chairs, and the movement burst onto the global stage.
Hundreds of photographers from around the world decided to follow Soulia’s lead and collectively raised more than $3.2 million for charities ranging from food pantries to hospitals to animal shelters and beyond.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced iconic imagery that will remain seared into the memories of an entire generation. Images of refrigerator trucks lining the street outside city morgues, shots of visibly exhausted frontline health care workers and young children wearing protective masks.
But Soulia believes the positive elements of her images are largely what resonated with so many people, along with a desire to help their local communities in some form.
“In the face of so much uncertainty and fear, people really responded to seeing simple images that showed the joy of families being together,” Soulia said, adding, “But the stars also aligned in the sense that people who were home from work and school, and who wanted to give back to their communities, found that this project provided a perfect avenue to do that.”
In November, Soulia and her friend Collins released a book titled The Front Steps Project, comprised of images from around the world that were inspired by their simple idea that grew into an international phenomenon. Proceeds go to charity.
“These photos portray the hope and courage and bravery and perseverance of so many people during this pandemic,” Soulia said. “From paying tribute to nurses and doctors on the frontlines to recognizing that basic rituals and celebrations continue no matter what, we see that a pandemic doesn’t stop a birthday or the arrival of a newborn baby, or so many of life’s other important moments.”