Most of us are spending more quality time in the house with our families and pets than we ever have before. It's a rare time of togetherness, even as social distancing for COVID-19 keeps us apart from everyone else. Why not capture the moment in a photograph?

Boston-area photographer Cara Soulia came up with the idea just a few days ago, writing on Facebook, "These days are challenging for every single one of us. Even if we are separated, we are together."

Since then, more than 300 photographers around the world have replicated #thefrontstepsproject. Photographers like Melissa Gibson in Milton, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, send word via social media, telling families to gather on their porches and front steps. They take a photo from more than 10 feet away, email the image and the family sends a donation to a local charity.

family on front steps with dog It wouldn't be a family portrait without the dog. (Photo: Melissa Gibson)

"I saw it as a chance to document this time for other families," Gibson tells MNN. "I figured I could step in and help with the remembering, even if it's just a photo on the front steps. As a stay-at-home mom, I often wonder if I am even making a difference in my girls' lives, or others. Offering these quick sessions helped me see that I can make a difference somewhere and my work is valued. It's a way to unite us while we are isolated, getting to know each other on our front porches and raising money at the same time."

girls on front porch Melissa Gibson's daughters pile together on their front porch. (Photo: Melissa Gibson)

Within 24 hours of posting the idea, she had more than 100 families sign up. She is asking for donations to Meals By Grace, a nonprofit that provides meals to children in need.

"Oh boy. This took off like a rocket," Gibson says. "Before I announced it, I actually asked a couple of my neighbors if I could photograph them because I did''t think anyone would want to do it. But the way this community jumped at the chance to help Meals By Grace? Unbelievable. In the time it took for me to input one family in my spreadsheet, five more would commit. It has just been a whirlwind of amazing."

'This is a come-as-you-are moment'

family on front steps Families make a donation in exchange for the photo. (Photo: Melissa Gibson)

Gibson tells people not to dress up like they would for a fancy portrait.

"We are all so vulnerable right now. I didn't want anything to 'cover that up.' This is a come-as-you-are moment. It's families saying: 'Look. Here we are. This is what we look like as we try and just ... manage. We've all been hit pretty hard, we aren't perfect, but we're making it. See us? See us just simply making it?'" she says.

"I want to tell the story of how every family in our community is making sacrifices in order to help those who are elderly/immunocompromised (my mom is one of them). How moms and dads have said, 'You know what, this is what we can do to help ... staying home. Together.' Here's this family sacrificing, here's your neighbor sacrificing, here's a teacher, service worker, restaurateur, bus driver, etc. This is us just trying to make it but we are doing it together."

Porches and pajama pants

Family on front steps Photos were taken from at least 10 feet away and emailed to the families. (Photo: Melissa Gibson)

Gibson tries to organize as many people as she can in a neighborhood, gives them a window when she'll be there ("like a dishwasher repairman" she jokes) then texts them when she arrives. She directs them from a distance, takes a few shots then emails them the image within 24 hours and asks them to make a good faith donation to the charity.

family on front porch The response to Gibson's idea has been 'a whirlwind of amazing,' she says. (Photo: Melissa Gibson)

So far, she has 120 families signed up and has requests on hold, allowing her to catch up and stay organized.

"But I will continue this campaign until everyone knows what everyone else's front porch (and pajama pants) looks like," she says.

"Seeing families out on their porches again, with smiling faces and happy waves, it's the best feeling. Even when it has been pouring rain during a porch photo, the families are just so eager to get out there. Like they're saying 'Look, here's our porch and it's a safe place for us. We'll be vulnerable and welcome you into this little part of us.' It is nice to see people walking and kids talking to parents while riding their scooters. But the porch? The front porch is that little space between the quiet haven of the inside and the openness and freedom of the outside. It's a good mix of both."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Photo project captures togetherness, even as coronavirus keeps us apart
Photographers across the country are capturing images of families at home during the pandemic for the Front Steps Project.