This story was updated Wednesday, August 5, 2020, at 7:15 p.m. with audio interview.
Kathleen Greeson is a Chattanooga-based, award-winning photographer whose images have appeared in publications ranging from Time to People to National Geographic. Big names, impressive credentials.
Yet it's her latest project — accomplished without leaving home — that may ultimately have the broadest global reach.
For "Safe at Home," Greeson is photographing families and individuals as they go about life while sheltering in place. Begun in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the project is meant to capture the world's seismic shift into sanctuary, one household at a time. So far, she has completed 142 shoots in homes around the world, simply by using the FaceTime feature on her cellphone.
"I have done almost every continent, and I'm talking with somebody in Antarctica," she said. "I'm hoping that's going to work out, so that it's truly from every point on the globe."
Catherine Fore's family appears in some of those black-and-white screenshots. The Signal Mountain resident said Greeson has photographed her family several times over the years. For those more-formal portraits, Fore said, she was "always searching for the perfect dresses" for her two daughters and that "everyone's hair was done just right."
For "Safe at Home," Greeson was looking to capture the ordinary moments of everyday life.
Fore said her family's original photo shoot showed her and her daughters, Mary Corinne and Carolina, seated with each other on a couch in conversation, oblivious to Fore's phone across the room through which Greeson was watching. Another session, this one impromptu, happened after Fore posted a photo to Instagram of her girls in a virtual ballet class and Greeson asked if she could photograph the girls as they danced. An image of the family's black lab, Sonny, wrapped in a tutu, made it in front of the camera lens that time.
"I was excited for her to document us as we are," Fore said, adding that the images are especially meaningful because they pinpoint the months the family, along with husband/dad Brooke, spent exclusively together in the early days of the pandemic.
"I love that I have these photos to document that time," Fore said, adding that she has similar images of her grandmother made by Greeson while the grandmother was unable to have visitors at her assisted-living apartment.
Fore said looking through the entire collection of households, viewable at KathleenGreeson.com, is "such an interesting glimpse into real life."
"People let their guards down," she said. "That was really refreshing."
For this project, Greeson said she had to "think about things in a totally different way" than she normally would as a photographer, making do with existing light and compositional elements.
"'Safe at Home' — that was kind of the point for me, taking care of my family," she said.
She and her husband, Times Free Press columnist Jay Greeson, have two children, ages 10 and 12.
"But I still got to [virtually] go to South Africa and Italy and Guatemala," she said.
The Times Free Press recently checked in with the former staff photographer to get the latest on how the project is developing. Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did the "Safe at Home" project come about?
A: In early March when the coronavirus started shutting down America, I started thinking about how I could document this moment in history. Of course, I was documenting my own family and our experiences but felt there was more I could be doing. I had seen a lot of photographers doing front-porch photos, and those are great projects too, but I wanted to do something different.
The idea for this came to me as I was FaceTiming with my brother one afternoon, and I made a screenshot. In that moment it dawned on me that maybe I could photograph other people this way, too.
Q: How have you gotten people to participate?
A: I started out with family and then went to friends and family, and then from there it just grew so that then I was photographing people I'd never met. People from all over the world are contacting me to be included.
I would say a huge part of it has been social media. I would send some of the pictures to each person after we did the shoot, and people would post to Instagram or Facebook and tag me and include my information. I'm very grateful for modern technology. Social media is the modern-day word of mouth.
Q: Were there particular activities you or the subjects wanted to document?
A: They were all different. We would figure it out as we went. Sometimes we would have a conversation ahead of time: What have you been doing the most? What does your life look right now? Sometimes it would be something that would jump out at you — OK, I want to document that, and we would pick the time based on when they were doing that activity. Sometimes it would be whatever they were doing at that moment.
Q: Logistically, how did it work once you were on the phone together?
A: We would just FaceTime. I'd tell them to show me around so I could see where we were. I'd tell them where to put the phone and where to put themselves, if it was a portrait. If they were doing things, I would tell them where to put the phone or the iPad or the computer, and I would direct that person where to go and how to move, and I would take the screenshot that way.
Sometimes there might be someone else in the room who wasn't going to be in the photo, like a roommate or a caregiver. That was nice when that was the case. Most of the time, we had to prop the phone or device on something so I could see them that way.
That was probably the most difficult part of the process, what to prop the phone on. I feel like I could make a whole separate project of the faces I was making trying to get it right. People wouldn't be able to hear me when they stepped away from the phone, so I'd be yelling. Everybody had a good time with it.
* View more images at KathleenGreeson.com.
* Contact the photographer via Instagram, @kathleengreesonphoto, or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: How busy has this kept you?
A: I consistently did about three a day for while. When I was busiest, I had a day when I did 10, so it was like a full-time job. They only take about 10 to 15 minutes really — unless you've got toddlers. Then it can take longer.
One day, my friend in Italy called and said, "I'm at my favorite pizzeria. The owner wants you to make his photo." I pulled my car over and started making pictures of a guy in Italy making pizza.
One I did in Thailand, I had to call at 9 o'clock at night. It was 8 in the morning where she was, and she was starting her day. It's been really interesting.
Q: Have any of the photo shoots been especially meaningful?
A: It would be hard to pick a favorite. Sometimes there were special moments, even if it wasn't an amazing photo [technically].
I did one of two daughters with their mom. The mom has early onset Alzheimer's and lives in a nursing home. We had the phone inside the room with her, with them on the outside looking in. It was pretty special to capture that moment.
A couple who were in the final stages of trying to adopt needed to have photos of themselves inside their home, and of course because of the lockdown they couldn't have a photographer come in. So we did a virtual photo shoot, and I was able to help them with the adoption process. That was a nice feeling.
One of my photo subjects told me, "I'm so glad you asked me to do this project. I feel a lot less alone." I heard that several times after people looked through the photos: "I feel a lot less alone. There are other people doing the same thing I'm doing."
I had not thought about that. We're all doing the same things, but you don't know it because we're all separate.
That was especially meaningful to me. We were all needing to connect. And maybe I was more than I realized it.
Q: What has the project meant to you as a photographer?
A: Never in my career have I worked on a project that has felt like this one, that was such a universally shared experience all over the world. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be part of so many moments in so many places and grateful for the modern technology that makes it possible to photograph someone in Italy while sitting on my back porch in Tennessee.
Email Lisa Denton at email@example.com.