I live in Jackson Heights, New York City, one of the most diverse neighborhoods on earth, where 160+ languages are spoken, and a central part of the COVID-19 epicenter during the onset of the pandemic in the U.S.
In late March of 2020, 13 people died from COVID-19 in our local hospital over a 24-hour-period when cases were well over twenty-thousand across the city. Five people died from COVID-19 in our own building in those early months. Such terrifying news compelled my wife and I to quarantine at home with our one-year-old son for more than two months and I was the only one who would venture out of the house no more than once a week to get groceries and basics, walking long distances to avoid public transportation. At night, the ambulance sirens would wail almost constantly, waking our son many a night, so I would lull him back to sleep in my arms while covering his eyes from the constant splashing of ambulance flashing lights across our room. The biggest source of fear, because the streets were completely empty, was the public uncertainty that no one really knew what we were dealing with. In April 2020, COVID-19 took our parish priest, a man in his early fifties, healthy as an oak, in less than five days. No one, because he was well loved by our community, and not even his partner was there bedside in his last moments.
Thucydides’ descriptions of the plight of Athenians during the plague in his The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is my reference artwork for this series. While the hecatomb he describes is much more sanitized in our age, the sheer disintegration of social bonds, of faith in public institutions, of private and public confidence, the fall of the economy and loss of jobs, and even the loss of access to food supplies, we were experiencing was not far from that Athenian experience.
When the city’s cases began to taper and manufacturing and retail businesses were allowed to reopen in early June under a Phase I public dictum, I went out to photograph people in my neighborhood because I wanted to document if they were truly wearing masks, which I believe was one of the main reasons our city began to turn the corner. I was interested in the well-being of my sister and fellow New Yorkers in my neighborhood because it was these diverse groups including my Latin-American community who have bored the brunt of the pandemic. And because I have a genuine interest in documenting the individual in the street and the individuals who frequent a specific location in order register a visual ethnography of place so that history may know a thousand years from now who was walking a specific location during this pandemic.
I chose Roosevelt Avenue and walked along it from 74th Street to 108TH street with the late afternoon sun at my back to use its warm light to illuminate my subjects. With one exception, all works are candid portraits. These [selected] works were done in two afternoon sessions on June 9th and 13th of 2020. I used a 35mm prime lens because I wanted to force myself to come really close to my subjects in order to capture expression and body language while documenting a sense of the place behind them. Cognizant of the fact that this lens forces me to operate at less than ten feet [three meters] from my subject, and that such a protocol may come across as invasive and aggressive to my subjects, I practiced meditation while photographing them and did my best to convey with my gaze and body language as an non-invasive and understated and subtle a presence as I could. I was even more careful when photographing women, self-aware of deconstructing my male-gaze, and often I found that a simple lowering of my head and eyes in deference would help alleviate my subject's concern, albeit not always. I used the last two hours of daylight because here in New York the architecture casts such deep-black shadows that I found it apropos to the idea that we were struggling to come out of a very dark place in the city’s history. It is the light at the point of each face in these portraits that I focused on as a sign that we are human beings after all and have the capacity to survive, and hope, and thrive despite our worst impulses. And so here we are in my neighborhood, because *we* are also American as well as New Yorkers, coming into the light.
#covid #coronavirus #covid19
I am happy to report "Man at Sunset" from this series has been included in the Lens Culture Street Photography Awards 2021 EDITORS' PICKS COMPETITION GALLERY. You can scroll down a lot of amazing work by my sister and fellow contenders and find "Man at Sunset" following this link: