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‘Social Distancing at 85mm,’ a series of front-porch portraits by Matt Keller Lehman 

Faraway, so close

Just because we’re sternly admonishing you to “stay at home, stay at home” like a broken record doesn’t mean we don’t miss you all. We do. A whole lot. Orlando is so much more than the attractions that the world at large knows us for: It’s the people, the wonderfully quirky and resilient people who make up the backbone of the city. And being isolated away from so many of our friends hurts, but we know it’s incredibly necessary for all of us to stay home, stay safe and stay well. Orlando Weekly photographer Matt Keller Lehman was eager to do a porch portrait series of Orlandoans in lockdown, and we all quickly compiled a list of just a few near and dear to our collective hearts. Seeing these portraits and reading their words made them seem closer and infinitely farther away at the same time. But that’s life for the moment. Enjoy these portraits of some of your fellow citizens, and we hope to see you all soon. — Matthew Moyer and Jessica Bryce Young

click to enlarge MATT KELLER LEHMAN / PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Matt Keller Lehman / photo courtesy of the artist

Social Distancing at 85mm
: Matt, behind the camera

It’s only fair we turn the tables and ask you a few questions. So how did this idea come to you? Was there one moment or incident?
Absolutely. When things got real mid-March, I knew I had a window to get out of town and drive to Dallas to see my sister, brother-in-law and nieces. It seemed like perfect timing to catch up with them. A solo road trip to clear my mind, see family, and armor up mentally for what I was about to face in Orlando when I came back. Time was precious and I didn’t want to just sit and wait for the inevitable quarantine mandate; I’d rather just dive into it when I rolled back into town. Which was exactly what happened. The day I got back, the city shut down.

I had a lot of time to think during my trip, though. I needed a new project when I got back. My photo contracts were inevitably going to be a sea of ashes. I also knew the severity of the situation regarding how it was going to affect other people and the isolation that accompanied the ‘stay at home’ decision. Timing-wise, it was going to be right at its inception but I knew it would be ripe to start capturing people from afar, on their porches. Because that was the new, unfathomable norm. It just made sense.

The next couple of days I started riding my bike around more and seeing how this was unfolding in the soul of my neighborhood. The overarching vibe was grim but coupled with a new sense of optimism I had never witnessed. It seemed like overnight my little pocket of downtown Orlandoans decided to develop curiosity about the strangers in the street and sidewalks; no judgment or self-isolation. It was surreal. Solidarity on a tier I had never even considered possible, prior to COVID. Like a small Midwestern town. I was just waiting for someone to invite me over, to foil up some leftover casserole to take home. That was the vibe. The more I started talking to people and discussing my idea with some friends, the more I started hearing stories about their neighborhoods and what people were doing to bridge their community together during these times. And that’s pretty much it.

We’re in a good place right now. We’re completely unhinged at a macro level, but I feel it’s important to dial away from that when we can and get to know the people around us more who don’t subscribe to doomsday culture and choose to keep a positive mind frame. That’s the strength we need. Well, that and I just love meeting new people. They’re a lot more interesting when you make an attempt to get to know them.

How many of your neighbors do you know now that you didn’t before?
Good question. I’m having longer chats with them from afar now but it’s more about seeing consistent faces around Lake Cherokee and Lake Davis now, knowing these people must all be my neighbors. We all smile and nod now; a small little ice-breaker for when I see them elsewhere around town now after this ends. “Hey, I think you live in my neighborhood. I’m Matt.” (And then we bump elbows, I guess.)

Why the title “Social Distancing at 85mm”? Tell us a little about the technical and logistical aspects of this project.
I normally prefer shooting with my 85mm for this type of work. It seemed appropriate given the distance, especially at the beginning. I had a few subjects who were concerned about the idea of a shoot. They assumed I would need to get close to them. I reassured them I’d be at least 10 feet away. I had just gotten back from shooting the barren streets of New Orleans (on the way to Dallas) – before the virus swarmed that city – so I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t potentially infect someone if I had brought home the COVID funk. ‘Social Distancing at 85mm’ just had a little ring to it as well.

How is the pandemic affecting you personally?
It’s a day-to-day mission to try and stay focused. I rolled the dice with the full-time freelance chess game a couple of years ago and make 90% of my income taking photos of people in relatively crowded environments. Everything tentative or on the calendar – both locally and nationwide – received an indefinite death punch.

I had a really bad day last week. I woke up angry. Angry with our overall leadership, ignorant people, and the whole situation in general. At the peak of it, I got a phone call from my 95-year-old grandmother. She told me I was on her mind and something told her to call me. You can’t script that stuff. Since then, if that cloud rolls in, I just remind myself that I’m not alone and my only option is to weather the storm with a combative smile. I’m usually an optimistic guy but man, that day destroyed me for a bit. I choose to stay creative, eat well, exercise, chat/Zoom with friends and family, read, etc. And if I happen to walk by my TV and it defaults to Family Feud at 9 a.m., I’ll sit for 10 minutes and judge bad responses.

Do you know anyone who’s gotten sick?
Thankfully nobody close to me has gotten sick, but I have a couple friends who have experienced loss and some scares. Yet another reminder, though, that we’re all closer to each other than we think. And that little nod or smile we share when passing each other should be a reminder of that. Fingers crossed, this is the new routine moving forward. Because we fucking need it!

Music/podcast recs?
“The Daily Zeitgeist” podcast – Miles Gray makes me want to read more. And my “Covid Bike Rides” Spotify playlist: 160 songs strong, from the Meters to Sonic Youth to Aphex Twin to Cocteau Twins to Suicideboys. I know. It’s confusing.

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This story appears in the April 29, 2020, print edition of Orlando Weekly. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider supporting this free publication with a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.

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