I took all of these pictures from at least six feet away while wearing my N95 mask. Does that matter? Should I have been out photographing in the first place? Sure, I was also taking a walk and therefore “engaging in a recreational activity.” But I definitely wasn’t on assignment. Just how “essential” were these pictures?
Here is what I said to each person or party photographed: “Hi, my name’s Riley. I’m a photographer for The Saginaw News. I’m working on a series of portraits and documentary photographs of ‘life in quarantine’ [air quotes included]. May I take your picture?”
I think it’s telling that I felt the need to put air quotes around “life in quarantine.” It seems to suggest that I’m aware of the dubiousness of my own purpose. Because, frankly, it is dubious. At a time when truly essential workers (whom we’ve always treated, and continue to treat, as if they’re expendable) are keeping the rest of us alive, even the remotest pretense feels unconscionable. At the very least, I ought to be making a clear distinction between the sort of reportage that actually lets people know what the hell is going on and the sort that I’ll peddle for prizes and recognition and characterize as part of the “process of understanding and documenting our times.”
Which is not to say that one kind is more valid than the other or that they can’t overlap. I’ll even venture a guess as to where that overlap could be for photos like these.
It doesn’t really have to do with understanding or documenting the times. Like yes, it’s true: we were all begged to stay inside for a couple stressful months. Yes, we did, as a matter of fact, all cope with these restrictions in different ways and comply with them to different extents. Yes, it was actually demonstrated once again that our society is ridden with class- and race-based inequities.
Maybe what the overlap (between keeping people informed and making art) actually has to do with is just beauty and encouragement. In difficult times, people should be given the facts. But they should also be given beauty and hope, reminded that they are alright, shown images of themselves that say, in spite of all we don’t know, you are the thing that matters.