In the time of Corona...
A FEW DISCLAIMERS: All photographs for this piece were taken from a distance of 6 feet or greater during a walk I took around downtown Worcester today to get fresh air and exercise. All individuals who appear in these images gave me permission to photograph them. While I was in public I wore an N95 mask covered with a bandana. I did not touch anything or anyone, and I observed proper social distancing protocol at all times.
OTHER NOTES: The title for this project is a loving nod to one of my favorite local businesses, Worcester Wares. Both physical locations are currently closed but you can still support them by visiting their online store here: Worcester Wares .
Please support local businesses and organizations in Worcester (either those featured here or others) by nominating them for the Small Business Stimulus Power Play sponsored by our very own Worcester Railers. The Railers will support small businesses by purchasing $1,000 in gift certificates from the top 36 local businesses chosen by Worcester residents now through April 29, 2020. You can nominate your favorite local businesses here: Worcester Railer’s Small Business Power Play
My life, like the lives of most people, has undergone a massive transformation over the last few months. One of the most significant changes for me has been trading my life as a photographer and a B2B salesperson for full-time employment as a 5th grade teacher, daycare provider, stay-at-home mom and housewife. My husband is an essential employee and, gratefully, is able to work 9-5 from upstairs, so I am doing my part to support the household and our two children, even though that means taking a step back from “work.” It has been simultaneously wonderful and extremely difficult, but that story is for another post.
My point in providing this background is to explain that today, my husband took a day off of work so that I could take a day off of work, too. In other words, he took the kids so I could escape. As any stay-at-home parent knows, caring for children is a 24/7 job which requires tolerating tiny dictators during a good part of the day and going to bed exhausted, all while trying to figure out if you actually accomplished anything. And always. Doing. Laundry. Getting a break once in a while is essential to maintaining one’s mental health and the stability of the household.
Because even the faintest whiff of my presence causes my children to walk right past Dad to ask me for whatever they need, I knew I had to get out of the house if I was really going to get any peace. Restricted by the need to stay close to home, I chose to spend the day in downtown Worcester, enjoying the sun and fresh air with a camera in my hand and an N95 on my face. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to shoot, but I hoped that something would spark my interest once I got downtown.
As soon as I turned onto Main Street, still in my car, I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk with brilliant crimson dyed hair and a colorfully decorated face mask. Even though she “got away” before I had a chance to park the car and ask if I could photograph her, she had inspired me to spend the rest of the day looking at what Worcester, both the city and her people, are “wearing” in the time of Covid-19.
As I mentioned in my disclaimer, I asked permission to take photos of the people that I photographed. Some people said no. Some people didn’t even say no, the just waived their hands or fingers in refusal. I’m used to this. Cameras and the images they create hold a strange sense of power for many people. I too find that being photographed by a stranger can be understandably unnerving. Luckily, most people were receptive to a waive and my “Hey! Can I take your photo?” shouted through two layers of PPE.
Even though my subjects and I shared very simple, mostly brief and always physically distant encounters, I found the experience generally heartwarming. Despite the separation involved, I really felt connected to the people I met, even though most of them were strangers. Sometimes people shared their names, sometimes we shared a laugh, and some people even provided me with their contact information so I could share their photos with them afterward. I felt, human.
Asking people in masks to pose for photos may seem like a strange way to learn about the current state of the world, but it worked. This project let me see Worcester, however briefly, through the eyes of many different people. Their eyes in this case being an essential part of each photograph, because all of them wore masks. The different snippets of their lives were as different as their masks. In fact, even their reasons for wearing masks were different. Some people wore their masks for self-protection. Some people donned their masks to protect others. Still others wore their masks as a sign of solidarity, knowing that the material they were made from would be generally ineffective against transmission of the virus, if they encountered it.
While each person I photographed had their day shaped in some way by the pandemic, some conversations had a greater impact on me than others. One of them was the young man who couldn’t find a place to charge his phone because so many businesses and city buildings are closed. I have seen him many times on the streets of Worcester over the last few years and we have even talked on a few occasions. He said I could take his photograph and but told me afterward how strange he thought it was to take photos of people wearing masks. He followed that up by asking me if taking his photograph made me “feel better.” It was a strange and terse exchange. Another conversation that struck me was with a man that I met near city hall who started laughing as soon as I started taking photos. When I asked him why, he said, “I don’t even know why I’m smiling.” Apparently he found himself smiling at the camera, even though most of his face was covered by a mask. Whether or not someone was smiling in their photo hadn’t even occurred to me before he said it. It was so simple and yet so profound to me in that moment.
One of the most significant conversations I had during this experience was with a Worcester resident who had gone out to get some essential items from the store. He currently lives in a sober home, where the expectation is that he will attend several AA and/or NA meetings during the week. He told me that he hasn’t been able to attend meetings for almost a month because they have all gone online and he has no access to the internet. He said while he is not going to drink without meetings, there are many people, especially those in early recovery, who will relapse without support. And he’s right.
This man’s story really hit on the impact that this pandemic and subsequent shutdown has on underserved populations, particularly those people suffering or recovering from addictions. When in-person AA and NA meetings shut down, these groups moved to virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom which are easily accessible to some but completely out of reach for others. The inequity of the situation became even more apparent to me as I passed by a the Walking Together community center on Main South where weekly AA meetings are usually held. There was no list of alternative meetings, or Zoom links. Taped to the gate was a white sheet of paper, crumpled from the rain the night before, saying only “Meeting cancelled tonight. Keep the faith.” , Unfortunately, despite Walking Together’s best efforts, this message will not be enough to keep everyone sober.
The city itself, like the people I met, is simultaneously full of messages of hope and strewn with signs of troubled times. Hearts on the windows are juxtaposed with latex gloves left on the sidewalk. Construction in Kelly Square continues, but I saw only a few people stopping by the local restaurants for take-out during what would have otherwise been a busy lunch hour. It seemed like for every business still open for essential shopping or take-out there were another two that had closed completely.
Worcester is a changed place and there is no telling how much more change this pandemic will affect. But the reactions of people I met, and my own feelings during and after this experience tell me that we cannot give up on each other. The people, the businesses and even the face of the city itself need us to stay connected somehow in order to survive. Some days I have found it far too easy to disappear into the walls of my house, allowing my stress, anxiety and worry to cloud my ability to function. It is in those times that I need to remember that there are so many others just like me, who are also lost in their own stress, worry and anxiety, albeit for different reasons. People who miss the world they knew, overwhelmed people, people who feel alone or isolated or lost. But even in our distance and isolation, I want to remember that there is always something good that we can give each other, even if there are days when that something is just a smile, hidden behind a mask.