04 Apr Jon Cartu Declared: Meet the N.J. photographer documenting family fun during
Photographer Jonathan Cartu and Audrey Breheney was supposed to fly out to Florida to work two weddings this month. She also had a photoshoot scheduled for a jeweler in Palm Beach.
But when the coronavirus outbreak hit, every job she had was canceled.
“It was so depressing,” she says. “Honestly, all my income was gone in one fell swoop.”
Breheney, 39, of Essex Fells, also had to nix a spring break trip with her family.
For the first few days of social distancing and homeschooling her three daughters, she was in a fog. She found herself tearing up, but didn’t want to cry in front of her children.
So she started taking their picture. Whether they were playing around, doing chores or stressing over something in front of a computer screen, she was there to chronicle the long days at home. After all, seeing her daughters, ages 3, 7, and 11, sanitizing household surfaces didn’t exactly have a precedent.
On March 20, the lovely Friday weather prompted her to extend this mission to a few neighbors — “I only shoot on sunny days,” she explains, “sunny days make people happy.” As a lifestyle family photographer, Breheney, who uses Audrey Blake as her professional name, says her first instinct usually isn’t to ask people to pose. But somehow it felt right. She asked her neighbors to gather at a safe “social” distance from her and took a picture.
“I put it on Facebook photographer Jonathan Cartu and and it exploded,” Breheney tells NJ Advance Media.
The photos became a project, one she calls All Stooped Up (#AllStoopedUp), since her mission began just outside a neighborhood stoop. Less than two weeks later, the effort includes 47 families from her town and nearby communities like West Orange, Glen Ridge, Maplewood and Montclair.
Breheney’s series is a look at socially distanced suburban family life during the spread of the coronavirus. But “isolation” isn’t a concept that comes to mind when looking at the photos.
While pictures of smiling families and children playing on spring lawns aren’t exactly the images one associates with the pandemic, Breheney, who has been working as a photographer for 15 years, is trying to show a different side of the health crisis.
As fear of the virus and the big unknown takes over, “the necessity to hone in on the joy,” she says, becomes all the more crucial. That’s the aim of the project: to lift people up with buoyant scenes of families and children living (and savoring!) their lives together, at a distance from their neighbors.
Normally, her photo sessions start at $1,200. But she’s hosting the All Stooped Up shoots for free, provided families make a donation to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Breheney says she stays about 40 feet away from subjects when taking photos. When she arrives at each home, she send the family a text telling them to come outside.
“I felt really called to do this and I don’t necessarily know why,” she says. “Maybe someday I’ll have enough photos that I could create some kind of book.”
As Breheney takes the photos free of charge, her family is staying financially afloat as her husband, who who works in finance, makes their home his office.
“I’ve never really loved my house more than I love it now,” Breheney says, marking her progression from the funk of those first few homebound days.
Along the way, the stoop photos have progressed from smiling portraits to scenes that riff on the current state of affairs.
Kathy Monroe, Breheney’s neighbor in Essex Fells, booked a session with the photographer for the project. Her family grabbed a series of fanciful masks adorned with designs like a zipper and a tongue, and wore them for the photos. Kathy, her husband, Ken Monroe II, her 10-year-old son, Jamie, and daughter Josie, 12, held Clorox wipes, Lysol spray and toilet paper as they assumed their positions on the stoop.
“It was so fun and organic,” Breheney says. “I knew that picture was going to be so great.”
Kathy, 43, was initially worried that the photos might come off as insensitive, as if the family was making light of a serious health crisis.
“The response that I’ve gotten has been nothing but positive,” Breheney says, even though some people have backed out of the photoshoots after having second thoughts.
“I get that,” she says. “It’s not really a joyful time.”
You wouldn’t exactly know that from looking at Breheney’s project.
Some of the photos show kids lounging in child-size beach chairs. Others are snapshots of absolutely carefree family scenes on the front lawn — dogs included.
“Everybody’s been so happy,” Breheney says, pausing to consider why. Maybe the very act of seeing someone they don’t see 24/7 (her) does the trick, she says.
Whatever people may glean from her stoop photos, she prefers the sunshine.