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Full Houses, Empty Streets: Photography School Student Creates “Shelter-in-Place” Portraitures

Academy of Art University’s photography school student, Rachelle Steele, was on her evening run in her Sacramento neighborhood when she was suddenly struck by inspiration. Seeing the drastic contrast of the full houses and empty streets, it became the perfect opportunity for her to document the lives of families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As living rooms become family theaters and classrooms for children, bathrooms become meditation oases for frustrated parents, and kitchens finally are being fulfilled in its purpose for cooking, the idea seemed as natural and most fitting as they come.

Shelter in Place Portraiture

“I was thinking of my across-the-street neighbors who never have a family portrait made, how beautiful would it be to give them that right now, and how does that really speak for all the households,” said Steele. And so she reached out to her neighbors through emails and phone calls, asking them if they would like to take part in her project, the “Shelter-in-Place” family portraiture.

No Place Like Home

Steele’s portraits are primarily in black and white, thereby minimizing distractions from environments, while also properly illustrating the facades. This stylistic choice allows the viewers to thus focus on the subjects better, and allows them to understand and react emotionally to the affectionate situations, picturesque though bizarre the underlying context may be.

“No one is spared,” said Steele. She tried to include different types of households in her project to document the massive impact of this pandemic. But she also made sure to capture the similar smiles that contradict the harsh and unfortunate fact to visually elaborate every individuals’ resilience.

The Mark of an Academy of Art Artist

Steele believes that visual storytelling is one of the most important elements in photography, which she has learned at Academy of Art University as an artist. She wants to shoot not only beautiful pictures for the families but also preserve this historical moment with photos.

She wants to tell the story of how people found strength from within homes, and that it is during this moment of pandemic when everyone knows better than ever that, indeed, there is no place like home.

Shelter in Place Portraiture
Shelter in Place Portraiture

“In their homes, in these intimate moments. This is about their love, connectedness, support; who they are in their spaces, and who they want to be in this moment and how they want to be seen,” Steele explained in an interview with FOX 40. “It is actually a moment for families to connect and rediscover who they are.”

The Visualization of Surreal Times

These portraits presented a complex scene of intimacy and isolation, which allowed viewers to experience and sense an unexplainable tension amidst an almost spooky serenity. They precisely visualized the collective emotions of contradiction in these surreal times.

When the windows and doors become the borders that confine people, and everyone is physically isolated from each other, it is the shared memory of those full houses, empty streets, and the love and support from each other that connect one and all.

Shelter in Place Portraiture
Shelter in Place Portraiture
Shelter in Place Portraiture
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