Photographers Look at Life in a Time of Isolation

From “Still Lives: Visual diaries from 15 photographers give a glimpse of life in the time of isolation,” a special section in the April 26 New York Times:

Cig Harvey
Rockport, Maine — You have to work hard at living in Maine in late March. You have to make  an effort at being happy when your day can peak with the orange light at dawn. Wear a pink scarf, cook with pomegranate seeds, paint a wall red, something to show you’re not defeated by the unrelenting winter. For the majority of the country, the start of April is glorious, spring bursting full of color and smells. But where I live, the trees are still completely bare. Everything is beige except when it snows. Our reward is the kaleidoscope of summer and fall and then, just like new mothers, we forget about early April, remembering only just how much we love Maine.

This year the virus intensifies these feelings. I am overwhelmed by the news and feel short of breath standing in front of the television. I want to show my daughter the world, but not this one.

I have never been more grateful to be able to go outside, yet I am desperate for blossom. I force spring in our house and plant row after row of zinnia, cosmos, morning glory, nasturtium. Enlisting an army of flowers around me. Planting seeds is like living with your fingers crossed, an act of hope. Five days ago I cut bare branches of forsythia ad forced them to bloom in warm water. This morning they opened, turning my whole kitchen gold. I wept on my knees.

Damon Winter
Cortland, New York— On a recent weekend we took my son, Noa, to a small lake near where we have been sheltering with my father and stepmother in central New York. He loves water and spent most of the time throwing rocks and digging holes in the gravelly sand.

At one point, Noa asked me to help him make a sailboat. We came up with a catamaran design made from hollow reeds and a decaying oak leaf. If not beautiful, it was at least lake-worthy.

After playingfor a few minutes with our new boat, Noa, who is 7, turrned to me and said, “I’ve never felt so alive.”

There have been many days since leaving New York City a few weeks ago when I feel thjs pressure on my chest like an anvil weighing on my ribcage. I am afraid there are people in my life I will never see again. I am afraid for what will become of my city. I feel this nagging guilt for leaving it behind. In my mind the real New York morphs into a half-truth vision from television news and my tortured dreams: a deserted, pre-apocalyptic wasteland on the precipice of implosion. In my nightmares I cough up blood.

I am not sure why Noa said what he did. Maybe it was the simple pleasure of unadulterated play or the joy of bonding over a creative endeavor. As we pushed our stick boat into the placid water, I saw a life raft, the kind you would cobble together to escape a deserted island. Noa saw a vessel for discovery, the beginning of a new adventure. As I heard him say those words, my fear and anxiety began to melt away and I was at peace with our choice to leave, at least for a few hours.

Maggie Steber
Miami, Florida — I am a documentary photographer who has worked in 70 countries covering war and hunger and many sad things but also great beauty and courage.

I live alone in a small house in Miami with two cats, A and B, who think they are dogs. I don’t mind being alone during this corona crisis because I grew up alone, an only child of an only parent who was a brilliant and eccentric scientist.

I was fortunate to have the mother I had. She was a parasitologist and worked with viruses as well, including early research on the AIDS virus. When I was a child, my mother would tell me bedtime stories in which the main characters were parasites and viruses. On weekends, we would go to her lab and I would play with white mice and look with fascination at jars containing tapeworms and all kinds of icky-looking manifestations of parasites.

One thing she taught me has stuck with me: that everything in the world was made up of small things, including living creatures and atoms, and that it was important to respect and understand the things we cannot see because nothing would be here without them.

Of late I have been making visual interpretations of experiences from my childhood in a project called The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma. Lily is my alter ego and the mistress of this secret place. This corona-enforced solitude and quarantine has given me the time to observe the beauty and magic that occurs on a daily basis in my imagined garden and in the real garden just outside my door. It was only by slowing down that I could see these things.

If there is any kind of silver lining to this deadly and tragic coronavirus it is that it has brought us to our knees and made us stop and think.

Ruth Fremson
Brainbridge Island, Washington — It doesn’t have to be a big or fancy nest but it has to be imprinted with my essence. Home is also a state of mind, representing ease and safety. I had spent little time there because work kept me moving. But now the coronavirus has changed that rhythm of life. Without travel, my world has shrunk to a zone within reasonable driving range. Life feels bizarre but I’m trying to dig deep, get what I can from this altered state, and treat it as a reboot.

I’ve been thinking how, for the past 30 years, I have told other peoples’ stories and joined their lives from behind my camera. I’ve been wondering if someday I will have time to digest all those incredible experiences.

Perhaps, at least in a small way, that someday has arrived.

Being at home for such a long stretch, I have become reacquainted with the things that I usually rush by on my way out the door. A scarf the Dalai Lama placed around my neck when he blessed me in Dharmshala hangs in my office, years after I used it in my wedding ceremony. A bronze figure of Goethe, which once resided on a bookshelf in my parents’ home, now holds necklaces gifted to me by various friends. As a child in post-war Germany when supplies were scarce, my mother hand-sewed a Hansel and Gretel scene onto a salvaged burlap sack. As an immigrant, she brought it to America and tucked it away until I discovered it decades later.

These are the physical reminders of some of the places and people I’ve met, the incredible experiences we’ve shared; difficult and happy. I wonder how they are managing during these challenging times.

In the Pacific Northwest, where my current nest is, I am surrounded by water and mountains. I feel well held by the beauty of the landscape. As a native New Yorker I worry about my friends, family and colleagues there. Tibetan prayer flags hanging on our porch face east towards New York; I hope they spread peace and grace that way as the wind blows them.

We are only stewards of our belongings. Eventually, those things will be passed on to someone else, but for now, they connect me to all those people and memories.

In those objects I see my own story.

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