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What Does Isolation Look Like? Photographers Had the Perfect Subjects: Themselves | Press "Enter" to skip to content

What Does Isolation Look Like? Photographers Had the Perfect Subjects: Themselves

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In their dining room in New Orleans, L. Kasimu Harris held the hand of his pregnant wife, her head slumped in her crossed arms, as she struggled with unabated pains months from her due date. When they drove to the hospital the next day, he took his camera, capturing his wife’s concerned eyes over the top of a KN95 mask.

Mr. Harris was one of 15 photographers across the country for The Times who documented, with intimate images and personal essays, their own experiences dealing with isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. “Still Lives,” the package of their photographs and reflections, was published online this week and will appear as a special print section this weekend.

The project was conceived shortly after The Times closed its main office in Manhattan in March. Editors in the photography department, working remotely and meeting over video chat, observed that they were peering into “these small digital windows into each other’s homes and lives,” said Meaghan Looram, director of photography. “We saw an opportunity to tell an intimate story that we hoped many of our readers would connect with, particularly during a moment where lots of people are feeling marooned in one way or another.”

In order to capture a range of sheltering experiences around the country, while also protecting everyone’s health, the editors directed photographers to become their own subjects.

“When you ask photographers to turn the lens on themselves, it often illuminates something that a lot of other people are feeling but don’t have an artistic way of expressing,” said the photo editor Morrigan McCarthy, who helped originate the project, adding that she hoped people would recognize facets of their own lives within the images.

Mr. Harris found himself chronicling a mix of his quiet home life and tense moments as his wife passed through the hospital. (Doctors later assured them that everyone was healthy.)

“This assignment came down at a time when I was trying to be strong for myself and strong for my family,” he said. “It gave me an outlet.”

Faltering under exhaustion, Brittainy Newman, who self-quarantined after online doctors said she might have Covid-19, set her timed camera on a tripod in the apartment she shares with her mother in New York and retreated to her bedroom for another dinner served on a tray, separated from her mother by a wall.

Even as she kept her distance, the camera allowed her to bear witness to her mother’s experience. One morning Ms. Newman woke to her mother, a professional clown who has owned her own entertainment business for 20 years, “bawling her eyes out” as she applied for unemployment.

Emily Kask interpreted her dark reality in a self-portrait, peeking from the edge of shuttered blinds in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Shaken by a home invasion several months earlier, Ms. Kask, living alone, clamped her window shut, played a recording of men coughing by her front door and, for this assignment, let herself focus on “these real deep fearful things.”

Recognizing the darkness of the world outside her farmhouse kitchen in Maine, Cig Harvey cultivated an alternative world, planting an indoor garden for her 8-year-old daughter, Scout, to “create a space of wonder and awe.”

Ms. Harvey was welcomed one morning to a shock of color bursting from pots scattered across her table: zinnias, marigolds, morning glories and sunflowers.

Seeing the full collection of work together for the first time after publication, Ms. Harvey said that gaining a glimpse into others’ experiences brought her to tears. “It was so moving, so honest,” she said.

In the newfound solace at home on Bainbridge Island, Wash., Ruth Fremson, a staff photographer who has built a career on the road — covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Sept. 11 attacks and war zones in the Middle East — saw her life align, surrounded by reminders of the past.

A heart-studded home her mother had stitched to a burlap sack in Berlin shortly after World War II. A white shawl used by the Dalai Lama to bless her after an interview and later used in her wedding ceremony.

“It’s important to stop every now and then and take stock of where we are,” Ms. Fremson said.

And mirroring the slowed rhythm of his own life in his photographic process, Tamir Kalifa sometimes shot just a few frames in a day and developed, one by one, nine rolls of film, producing what the photo editor Jeffrey Furticella called “visual poetry.”

In the stillness of his home in Austin, Texas, Mr. Kalifa watched “how the light was inhabiting my house,” finding beauty in how the sunlight fell through his blinds as if from two directions, casting rectangles across piled laundry. “It was hypnotizing.”

Later, in his bathroom he pulled the black-and-white negatives from a reel — the hamper of laundry, birds on a wire, his girlfriend smiling from a computer screen — and, using binder clips, hung them from his shower rod to dry.

“I really just hope that it makes folks feel less alone in this moment,” Mr. Kalifa said of the entire project. “We’re all human and it’s OK to be vulnerable. Especially now.”


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