Free Family Photos

Date: December 5 & 6 2015

Team: Chaya Stillwater-Lanz, Grace Prechtel, Trev True

Role: Project Lead


We were interested in how families mark time, how they memorialize one another, how they build mythologies and find identity. We noted that family portraits had been an important part of that process in our families but also noticed that what was once a formal process involving careful planning and preparation had been replaced by improvised cellphone iterations in ill-equipped domestic settings. We wondered was this simply a matter of convenience and adequate simulacra or were there other barriers contributing to this shift. We did a survey of local photography studios and realized that sitting fees had risen sharply. What would have cost $100 a decade prior was now as much as $600. We noted that while still affordable for some, many middle and lower income families would find it hard to justify such a large expense.


Leverage the resources available to us at Southern Oregon University to create an opportunity for families to have a free portrait sitting.


While we wanted the project to be open to any self-identified family, our focus was on making sure underserved populations had an opportunity to participate. We had a pretty good idea of how to execute the technical aspects of the project, but finding participants was an exercise in trial and error, phone banking and old fashion cold calling. We did use social media to promote the event, but most participants found us through an institution they were already connected with. We reached out to area schools, community health centers, libraries, food banks and large employers with varying success. State run schools refused to engage with us in any way citing liability concerns, but everyone else we contacted allowed us to post flyers. Harry & David, Northwest Pizza, and Martolli’s Pizza even offered sponsorship. Kids Unlimited, a charter school serving vulnerable populations in Medford was cautious at first. They noted that “free” was often the calling card of the unscrupulous and that their community was warry of being taken advantage of. I suggested that we meet in person. We explained our intent, logistical plan and solicited Kids Unlimited’s advice. They enthusiastically agreed to participate and offered to provide bus service from Medford to Ashland both days.


After talking with KU, we knew that simply offering a free service would be met with a measure of skepticism and decided to make it abundantly clear that we wouldn’t use or keep any photos, nor would we ask any personal information. Each family received a numbered card when they arrived and were directed to one of three studios for a sitting. After the sitting families chose their favorite photograph for editing and printing and were invited to a large classroom with free snacks and craft materials. Numbered cards were then presented for each family’s image drive and 8x10 print.


We were able to reach 120 families totaling over 500 people for a studio photography session. 40 volunteers donated 351 hours during the event. Sponsors included SOU Department of Art and Art History, The Schneider Museum of Art, Kids Unlimited, Harry and David Country Store, Northwest Pizza, and Martolli’s Pizza.

Selected drawings made by participants while waiting for their photographs