They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, even the photographer knows actual words are needed.

Jenn Ocken, whose Front Porch Project BR inspired Baton Rouge-area people to support pandemic-crippled local businesses, has turned it into a 280-page book.

“Shut the Front Door” combines more than 900 family pictures Ocken took during the project with stories she and her subjects tell about dealing with the lockdowns, social distancing and uncertainties of 2020.

The book title, Ocken said, comes from how frequently she asked the ones in front of her camera to close the front door behind them to create a better backdrop.

“These were feel-good pictures, but there were a lot of things that weren’t being said … that I felt obligated to communicate and preserve,” Ocken said of her idea behind the book.

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When the pandemic shut down many of the events that Ocken had booked for her photography business, she duplicated a Massachusetts effort called the Front Steps Project. She would take family portraits on the front porches of people who committed to buy gift cards to businesses that couldn’t fully open because of COVID-19 restrictions.

As word spread, other photographers joined Ocken, and hundreds of families eventually participated. A spinoff Store Front Project was created in which photographers created images businesses could use to promote themselves.

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“Shut the Front Door” features photos Ocken shot between March and June 2020.

There were comic moments. One involved a celebration with “10 Years Cancer Free” written in icing on a cake. But, when no one was watching, a dog the family was fostering licked “Free” off the cake. Ocken took a photo of the cake and the dog sent to timeout in a kennel. Another featured a water buffalo a St. Francisville family had brought to its property during the pandemic.

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Others were more poignant. Some clients begged off, saying they didn’t have energy to sit for a portrait because of pandemic stress. Ocken tried to capture that in the book, too.

“I wanted to preserve the ebb and flow of what we had to do not only for the project but what we had to do for the community and for people to understand we’re not all in the same boat,” she said, referencing a quote by author Damian Barr. “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. Some of us are on superyachts and some of us have just one oar.”

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Like The Front Porch Project BR, the book has a philanthropic component, supporting the Greater Baton Rouge Arts Council’s Creative Relief Fund, which supports artists and musicians still feeling the effects of COVID-19. Ocken said the fund will receive $5,000 if she reaches her goal of $50,000 in book sales. She needs $17,000 to cover the cost of printing the books.

She also plans to donate 70 books to libraries across the state and 130 books to local stores, which will receive all the proceeds from those sales. The book costs $55 at jennocken.com/store, and the website offers incentives to buy more copies.


Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.