back to blog
featured

12 Photographers on How to Survive the Lockdown

From Brooklyn to Bangladesh, what to read, watch, and listen to—and why to keep going.

Olgaç Bozalp, Funeral Flower Man, South Korea, February 4, 2020

Olgaç Bozalp

Where are you right now?

I’m in Istanbul. There’s a curfew here, sometimes three days a week, or four days a week. It changes all the time.

If you’re out on the street, they tell you to go home?

There’s a penalty if they see you. When they did it for the first time, they told everyone, maybe at eleven o’clock at night, they said there’s going to be a curfew for two days. It’s going to start at 12:00 a.m. And everybody went outside to stock up on some food. It was insane on the streets.

Then everyone’s crowding!

Yeah, exactly. I originally came here for a shoot for Dazed. I was going to stay for another week, then I was going to go back to London. Then my flight got canceled.

What was the commission for Dazed?

There’s this group of guys in Turkey, they have this kind of spiky hairstyle. They call themselves “Apache.” More of them are usually around the Mediterranean side of Turkey, and I wanted to do a documentary about them, and also wanted to photograph them for a while.

What do you think is going to happen in terms of fashion editorial work?

I think it’s already hard to make money in fashion, especially for creators. I feel like fashion is a big luxurious thing for people. This is not the priority, in my opinion, especially in times like this. Why do you need to shoot a fashion photograph? I feel like documentary photography might survive, but fashion photography will struggle.

You recently made a project for Atmos magazine about Songdo, a new city in South Korea two hours from Seoul. Why were you interested in Songdo?

I was doing research about future cities in the world, how are we going to live in the future. I was originally going to go to China before the virus. But there are other “smart” cities—I found some in Malaysia. And then I found the one in South Korea. I was curious to find out how they can be so sure how we’re going to live in the future, and I’m going to go see it with my own eyes. This was in January.

Were people in South Korea already taking precautions, like wearing masks on the street?

Extremely. It was pretty much everywhere in South Korea, every entry to metro stations, sanitizers, signs everywhere. I was wearing a mask. I shot the story in Songdo. It’s extremely expensive; they call it a ghost town. Because of the virus, it was completely empty.

Did you have a fixer there to get models for you? Or did you scout them on the street?

I showed up there by myself. I tried to find someone before I got there, but everyone said no, I think because of the virus. One of my friends introduced me to someone at one of the biggest modeling agencies, who then introduced me to an art director. He studied at Central Saint Martins in London. He did some of the set design, he took me to markets, and I photographed him as well. We kept it very simple.

Will you stay in Istanbul until you feel okay about going back to London?

First, these travel restrictions need to end, and I don’t really know when this is going to end. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the world.

What are you listening to, or engaging with, or watching at the moment?

I’m watching quite a lot of documentaries. I was actually watching a documentary on VICE about Iran, about how they are coping with the coronavirus and U.S. sanctions. And during the week, I’m mostly working on the video documentary I shot about the “Apache” guys.

Do you have any advice for photographers out there about how to keep going at the moment?

We need to look at things from a different perspective. I think everyone had ways of seeing things or looking at things in the past, and now maybe it’s time to change that perspective a little. That’s including me as well.

KangHee Kim, Quarantine, 2020

KangHee Kim

Where are you right now?

Bayside, Queens.

How are you keeping yourself creative during this time?

I make work almost every morning. I try to shoot as much as possible while running essential errands or taking walks in my neighborhood. I find experimenting with cooking keeps me creative and allows me to keep a good balance during the quarantine.

Do you have a daily routine? What are you currently working on?

I wake up pretty early in the morning. Make myself breakfast. I check my emails and clean my room. I usually work on my personal project Street Errands in the morning, because it sets me in a good state to start the day. Then I work on my commissions in the afternoon. I take walks or work out to stay mentally healthy. I end my day reading.

Do you have any advice for artists right now?

The most important thing is to stay physically and mentally healthy. The time we have due to stay-at-home orders could be utilized in a positive way for artists to really sit down and think about work. The solitary practice is absolutely needed in art, and this might be the time for us, by following the laws.

What is something you’re watching, reading, or looking at right now?

I have been listening to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo talk every morning. I am consistently reading the news. I have been reading multiple books at a time: I am currently reading Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (2009) by Robert Irwin, Men Without Women (2017) by Haruki Murakami, and Understanding a Photograph (2013) by John Berger; and I just finished How to Be an Artist (2020) by Jerry Saltz.

Has COVID-19 changed the way you create work? 

I devote more time to creating work to overcome my anxiety. I especially spent a lot of time trying to calm myself during the peak phases. Prior to COVID-19, I had been moving my attention to photos taken outside of New York—but now I’ve turned my attention to my surroundings, such as my apartment and my neighborhood, which is where I first started my project.

As a DACA recipient, you’ve been unable to leave the U.S. in over a decade. You have described your work as constructing your own form of “surreal escapism.” This idea feels especially relevant now, with travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. In light of what’s going on, have you been reevaluating your work?

It feels like an extreme version of what I have been dealing with. I had never imagined the world would experience stay-at-home orders. I find it outrageous to see people relating to my experience because of the travel restrictions. I realized with DACA, I was fortunate enough to be restricted in the States. Today, the ordinary is even more the extraordinary, and this is the time that I desire to construct my own form of surreal escapism more than ever. At the same time, I appreciate what is given at the moment. I will be longing for freedom, but I am curious to see how it is going to affect the way I think of my DACA situation after COVID-19.

Stefan Ruiz, Maritza Amezcua, 2017

Stefan Ruiz, Maritza Amezcua, 2017, for Vogue

Stefan Ruiz

Where are you right now?

I’m at home, in Brooklyn.

You usually travel a lot. Is this the longest time you’ve been grounded?

I don’t know if it’s the longest, but yeah, it’s kind of getting there, for sure.

What was the last commission, or the last project, you were working on right before the lockdown?

Right before the lockdown, the last thing I did was on March 15; I did a shoot for American Vogue, some portraits. We had to switch studios at the last minute. We all knew that was the last shoot for a while. Everyone knew it was coming. Everyone’s trying not to touch each other, but obviously, on a fashion shoot, you have to. The stylist is adjusting the clothes, there’s definitely hair and makeup. Social distancing doesn’t work with a fashion shoot.

Do you think people are going to have to figure out how to do their own makeup?

I’m sure people have been doing that now already, on their Instagram or YouTube videos. A lot of people you’ll see are wearing hats, but then you see someone like Cardi B, and she’s completely done up. She’s fairly savvy.

How are you keeping creative at the moment? What are you reading, what are you listening to, how are you filling your time?

I’m kind of a notorious collector, so I have all kinds of shit here. I’ve got a million things to either look at or go through, or work on, or listen to, or try to organize. Right now, actually, I’ve just been organizing books. Luckily, I traveled a lot right before this whole pandemic started. I was in Brazil for a couple weeks, and before that I was in Argentina, and then Chile. I collect records, and I bought a lot of records in Brazil.

Is there an album that you’ve recently discovered?

One I’ve been listening to a fair amount is Tim Maia. He kind of brought R&B to Brazil, and then combined it with Brazilian music in the early ’70s. He’s famous for that. For a while, he joined a cult, and he made a couple records when he was in the cult. They’re amazing. I have one of them, it’s called Racional (1975). There’s Volume 1 and Volume 2. Volume 2 is extra expensive, probably $500 or something, if you can find it [laughs]. I don’t have that one, but I have Volume 1.

Have you had any editorial commissions during this time?

I was asked to do a self-portrait for American Vogue. I didn’t really want to do a self-portrait, because there are so many selfies out there. I just took some pictures of things I was doing, or things I was seeing, and put them together and sent them.

What kind of images would you want to make now, as we move ahead?

I like doing portraits for sure, and personally, I’d like to work on some of my own stuff. In some ways, this is kind of good. At the same time, I need to make money. And I’ve been able to make money working for magazines, doing some advertising or whatever, for years. It’s kind of weird now, because that’s all just dropped out.

What personal projects are you working on?

I’ve worked a lot in Latin America on a really wide-ranging project that needs to be pulled together. Roughly, that project is about exploitation.

Do you have any advice for photographers out there right now?

I’m trying to figure it out for myself. I think it’s a great opportunity to focus on your own stuff or ideas, because there aren’t that many interruptions. Obviously, photography has become—it’s become harder and harder to make money. I think most people still need to make money one way or another. I don’t know what I could recommend for that. I would say, do probably what I’d never do, and simplify what you’re doing! And focus on it, and try to come out with something for whenever this ends.

Lieko Shiga, from the series Human Spring, 2018–19

Lieko Shiga

Where are you right now?

Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. I’m living in a part of the countryside named “small cow fields.”

How are you keeping yourself creative during this time?

I had a lot of work to do in my studio, so I’m focusing on that. And there were a lot of books I wanted to read, so now I can spend time reading them. I also talk with my friends online sometimes.

What books in particular?

The Persistence of Vision (1978) by John Varley, and many books by Jun Yonaha.

What does your daily routine look like?

7:00 a.m. — Wake up and go to the farm and work

8:30 a.m. ­— Cook breakfast and eat

9:30 a.m. — Play with the children and start work

12:00 p.m. — Cook lunch and eat

1:30 p.m. — Play with the children and work, sometimes go to the supermarket

5:30 p.m. — Take a walk with my kid

6:30 p.m. — Cook dinner and eat, then help my kid take a bath or shower

9:00 p.m. — Put the children to sleep, then go back to work, maybe focus on reading this time

12:00 a.m. — Sleep

Do you have any advice for artists right now?

The situation is very different and depends on each artist. So, I would like to say, just simply, let’s live while being considerate of others.

Are you currently working on something new?

Yes, I’m preparing some installations and video works and a garden installation. And I’ve just started Independent Bookstore Print Editions in Miyagi Prefecture.

How has the pandemic affected the arts in Japan?

I’m living in the countryside, so I don’t know the Tokyo situation well. But I guess it’s become a very precious experience to visit galleries and museums. I’m afraid that everything will shift online. The photographic image is like the “eternal present” (in the words of Bin Kimura, psychiatrist), so I’m afraid every experiment goes like a photographic image. I would like to resist the online world a little.

Matthew Leifheit, Reid Bartelme (top left), in Los Angeles, and Jack Ferver (top right), in New York, 2020, for the New York Times

Matthew Leifheit

Where are you right now?

I have been sheltering in a remote place on Fire Island, New York, with my dog and my boyfriend since the middle of March.

How are you keeping yourself creative during this time?

Ugh, I don’t know . . . If I have gotten any introspection done it comes in sort of manic flashes. I am trying to photograph. I am working on a long-term project about Fire Island, which is set at night, so at first I thought I would be getting a lot of work done here. Usually I love photographing people, but I have been challenging myself to photograph more landscapes, and this time seems perfect for that. Some nights I go out, but often it’s been very cold by the ocean and I opt to stay inside and watch a movie or read. My lab is closed, so I can’t see what I’m doing; I think some of the pictures might be good, but you really never know. There is something comforting about the undeveloped rolls starting to accumulate because in my mind, the pictures can be as brilliant as I want.

I also have a show up currently at Deli Gallery in Brooklyn, which was scheduled to open March 29, and after stay-at-home orders went into effect, it became a virtual viewing room. We had an “opening” for the show on Zoom, featuring a nude cellist playing Bach solos from his living room. We also held a poetry reading “at” the gallery in honor of the launch of my friend Paul Legault’s new book The Tower (2020), with readings by Elaine Kahn, Cole Lu, Justin Phillip Reed, and Ian Williams, in addition to Paul.

What does your daily routine look like?

Absinthe at ten, clean off my camera lenses at eleven, maraschino cherries ONLY until four, then a pickle and emails.

Is there any piece of advice you have for artists right now?

No. I feel like people are having such different experiences of the pandemic, I don’t think there is any kind of generalized advice I could give. We’re all figuring it out.

What is something you’re engaging with right now—whether reading, watching, or listening?

The website Emmazed, which is a project of the amazing Mo Mfinanga, has been hosting a Digital Discourse series of live conversations with photographers. You can watch them online on Mo’s site, which is one of my favorite places to find conversations around new photography.

I watched the movie Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997), which I heard about on the WFMU radio show Polyglot with Jesse Dorris. It’s based on the play by Terrence McNally, who died from complications of COVID in March. It’s about a group of gay friends in the mid ’90s who go to a house upstate, and the relationships and dynamics between them—and also racism and AIDS.

I also recently saw The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and don’t know how I spent the last ten years in photography without being recommended this film. Spectacular eye acting on the part of Faye Dunaway.

You’re also a publisher of MATTE magazine. Are you working on a new issue?

Beyond attempting to make my own photographs, I am still working on the upcoming issues of MATTE, which will feature the work of Chanell Stone, an extremely talented photographer who recently graduated from California College of the Arts. I first saw her work when I was on the jury for last year’s Aperture Summer Open. Other issues will look at Leor Miller, a recent Bard graduate, who has been making amazing work related to selfhood, hallucinations, and mysticism; and Shohei Miyachi, who is a genius and my colleague at Pratt Institute. We are publishing his series Rakuen, pictures made in adult theaters in Tokyo.

You recently made a portrait for the New York Times via Zoom, which involved bathtubs in Upstate New York and LA—and you made a behind-the-scenes video for Instagram. What was your inspiration for these?

The Zoom bathtub portraits were for an article on Reid Bartelme and Jack Ferver’s podcast Dance and Stuff. As a product of the assignment, I fell in love with the podcast and feel strongly that everyone should listen to it. I had the idea of photographing them in their tubs because of an anecdote I heard on their show about staying connected with friends by FaceTiming in the tub. And my editor, Jessie Wender, trusted me enough to say that we could try this as an option if Reid and Jack liked the idea. It was a fun shoot to do, ended up working for the story, and I really think those guys are the greatest.

Pablo Ortíz Monasterio, Khajuraho, India, March 2020, from the series Sacred Beasts

Pablo Ortíz Monasterio

Where are you right now?

I was traveling in India until mid-March, taking pictures for a project called Sacred Beasts. Things started to get complicated and dangerous, so we shortened the trip. We came back from Delhi through New York; we did a strict quarantine when we finally got to Mexico City, and since then, I have been at home and sharing time with Paula, mi compañera.

What does your daily routine look like?

In the mornings, I do some exercise, gardening, lunch, read the news. The afternoon is for photographic work, editing, scanning, and retouching to get the final image—and to my surprise, social media. For a long time, I have been distant and critical of how photographs are presented and seen on social media. Most pictures end up being about composition; there is no context to read the image. The “random” order of Instagram produces visual noise and generates surface reading, anecdotes and composition, basically.

In the late 1970s, I did my first long-term project with an Indian community of fishermen on the coast of Oaxaca, the Huave. I had not seen the work since we published the book Los pueblos del viento (The people of the wind) (1981). I pulled out the old 35 mm black-and-white negatives to digitize the photos we used for the book back in 1981, and also to look for “new” pictures. The process was interesting. I was looking and thinking about the Huave people; at the same time, I was thinking about the young photographer I was back then. I can say I am not a better photographer now, but yes, I am wiser.

The confinement gave me time to start an old scanner (an Imacon), slow but very fine and precise. After three weeks of intense work, I had 150 pictures that I liked and wanted to share them. During those long hours of desk work, I was wondering if there could be a way to present a body of work that can construct a more complex view of reality on a platform like Instagram. So I gave it a try and published fifty pictures (two or three a day) on Instagram of The people of the wind. Although the trip in India had to be shortened, I brought back plenty of surprising images. My next project for Instagram is thirty pictures from the series Sacred Beasts in India.

What are you reading, watching, or listening to right now? Are there any photobooks from your collection that you’ve returned to recently?

After my first visit to India, I remained fascinated with the region, so I am reading a long essay written by Octavio Paz, beautiful and enlightening: “Vislumbres de la India” (1995). I have seen some interesting documentaries from the Ambulante Documentary Film Festival presented digitally. And a few days before the trip to India, I found at a street book vendor’s the set of six books Iglesias de México, with text and drawings by Dr. Atl and photographs by Guillermo Kahlo (Frida’s father). Published from 1924 to 1927 in Mexico, the layout and production are wonderful. It’s my new jewel, and I am fascinated with it.

Do you have any advice for artists during this time?

Work and work and have fun and work some more.

Tahia Farhin Haque, Reaching out to the other side, Dhaka, 2020, from the series Colors in Confinement

Tahia Farhin Haque

Where are you right now?

I am from Bangladesh. I am currently living in the capital city, Dhaka, where I have been at home with my family.

What does your daily routine look like?

My routine has been very different than usual. The confinement and constrictions have made it impossible to be out and explore our intriguing world, but for the betterment of others and ourselves, we have to self-quarantine. The daily routine now comprises household chores, reading books, keeping in touch with loved ones. It’s the month of Ramadan, so the preparation for the meal to break our fast and all the washing afterwards takes up a huge chunk of time. Whenever I can, I work on my visual art and enhancing my knowledge.

What have you been reading, watching, listening to, or looking at?

I have been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2014), and I finished a book called Interpreter of Maladies (1999) by Jhumpa Lahiri. I have been watching old movies, like Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and listening to old Bangla and Hindi songs from the 1970s through the ’90s.

I have also been looking for opportunities to engage on Instagram with my audience and other content creators; and curating, handling, and sharing certain social-media accounts of artists/organizations that encourage artists. I have been actively sharing causes that help marginalized communities in these trying times; some of my friends are working to provide essential items, so I try to connect through social media as much as I can from my home.

Are you currently working on something new—or hoping to start or restart a project once isolation comes to an end? How you think your work will change after the pandemic?

I am working on a project called Colors of Confinement. I have also been working on a few other projects, which I will execute once the lockdown lifts and everything goes back to normal, but at the end of the day, the definition of the norm has changed, and I feel we have to be thankful and show great empathy towards each other, as well as put effort into our work to make it empathetic. My work will not change after the pandemic, but the way it is portrayed may change.

What are your concerns for artists and photographers in your community? Do you have any advice for artists during this time?

Artists and photographers are going to find themselves in a very unique space. Exhibitions and festivals may take some time to get back into full swing. Artists also now have to be aware of the projects they undertake and the medium they choose for expression. Art is always going to be there, and in times of pandemic, art will be the torchbearer for joy and hope. As artists, we need to consciously work on painting a picture that expresses the story of our collective struggle as humans and simultaneously encapsulate all the emotions involved.

I use the word empathy a lot, and I have to reiterate it again and again, to show our work in a way that is inclusive and free of bigotry. When reality is a nightmare, it’s up to the artists to bring art that can give a sense of belonging and make us feel, because humans are getting desensitized with this enormous COVID-19 crisis. It’s necessary, more than ever, to create art that is free of racism, sexism, and bigotry, and makes us feel again.

Bobby Doherty, Untitled, 2020

Bobby Doherty

Where are you right now?

I live in Brooklyn.

How are you keeping yourself creative during this time?

I’ve been making lots of photos. I like making photos on a small scale.

Do you have a daily routine?

I normally wake up and make coffee. I do a crossword in bed and drink the coffee. Then I eat breakfast. Then, I don’t know. Some days I have actual work to do, and some days I have nothing. I don’t like having set schedules.

What advice would you give to artists right now?

Go look at a flower.

Have you been listening to anything lately?

I’ve been listening to Faith (1981) by The Cure a lot.

Are you currently working on something?

Same Paper asked me to make some photos for a new magazine they’re making. The assignment was pretty simple, but I’ve had a lot of time to make it complicated!

You have been making a lot of still lifes lately—for stories about voting rights for the New York Times Magazine, “preppers” for the New York Times, and takeout for the Wall Street Journal. What’s it been like to create stories about the current situation?

Yeah, I’ve definitely been on the COVID still-life beat recently. Photo editors have just been mailing me stuff, and I’ve been shooting it in my studio. My studio is a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. I like working alone and I hate not working, so this has been a pretty good situation for me so far.

Do you feel like COVID-19 has changed certain aspects of your practice?

Well, I used to be able to shop around and find cool stuff to take pics of. That’s mostly gone. I basically just take photos of stuff I can buy from the few grocery stores in between my apartment and my studio. But I think it’s good to have creative restrictions. My pics were pretty simple before, and they’re pretty simple now.

Kathya Maria Landeros, Kimberly and Anali, Eastern Washington, 2019

Kathya Maria Landeros

Where are you right now? 

Currently, my family and I are in Medford, Massachusetts. In October, we relocated here for work. Had I known everything would go online a few months later, I probably would have considered signing a shorter lease and spending my time in California, closer to the rest of my family members and loved ones. I’m living in an apartment, but lately I’m imagining my life somewhere with outdoor space, good light, and warmer weather, in order to garden and make more pictures.

Have you been teaching this semester?

I’m very fortunate to work in the Photography Department at MassArt, where I have wonderful colleagues. Everyone made the effort to understand the needs of our students as they navigate this new landscape. There were so many circumstances to consider, from students who have lost their jobs, or were uprooted and had to find a new place to live. The shutdown occurred while we were away on spring break, so the first couple of weeks meant figuring out where everyone was and making sure they were doing well, and then trying to mold a flexible curriculum with the understanding that people may not have access to camera equipment or a reliable computer and internet access.

How did you adapt to working with your students?

That question has weighed on me heavily the past few weeks. Both classes I am teaching this semester were darkroom-based. One was black-and-white large format for second-year photo majors; and the second, an open elective called Drawing with Light, a process-based and experimental class. Large-format camerawork turned into whatever cameras they had available, and shifting entirely away from darkroom technique to a curriculum centered around discussions on making and reading photographs. At the beginning, we were looking at a lot of work by other photographers. As the weeks progressed, however, we’ve spent most of our time talking about the new images they are making at home, how they are feeling and navigating this moment in time, the challenges and surprises they are presented with.

In my elective class, we are using whatever materials are on hand, or that are readily available to purchase online. My students have used various processes, including collage, cyanotypes, anthotypes, camera obscuras, cliché verres, and shadow drawings. Their last assignment dealt with the observation of light, creating light sculptures with anything in their house that could refract light or cast shadows in interesting ways. It’s an assignment that’s focused on the act of observation and finding joy in the mundane.

How are you keeping yourself creative during this time?

My practice is very much rooted in engaging with people, and I’ve come to accept that this won’t happen for a while. In keeping my own advice to students in mind, I am trying to find the small moments of beauty and pleasure. My daughter is a young toddler and at an age where, developmentally, every day feels momentous. She inspires me to try to see things with some wonder. Weather permitting, and abiding by social-distancing measures, I try to walk with her outdoors as much as possible. Being outdoors is not only a critical component of my emotional well-being, but it’s the only time, aside from my dreams at night, when I am able to indulge and get lost in my thoughts.

What have you been reading or watching?

I recently finished reading the novel The Rain God (1984) by Arturo Islas, about a Mexican family along the U.S.-Mexico border. I am slowly perusing Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), and I keep revisiting certain passages for their beauty of language and observation. I am also watching a show called Vida about two Mexican American sisters in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. And whenever I want to think about my grandmother and mother, or want to have a good cry while dancing with my daughter, I listen to “Amor Eterno.” Santa Cecilia’s version is especially melancholic and beautiful, although growing up, I listened to Rocio Durcal or Juan Gabriel singing it.

Are you currently working on something new—or hoping to start or restart a project once isolation comes to an end?

I’m on a Guggenheim Fellowship that was to end officially in June, and the plan was to continue photographing in Mexican American communities this summer. My hope is to carry on as soon as I can, most likely next year. In the meantime, I am editing all the work I did last summer on the fellowship and bringing the two chapters of work, Dulce and West, to a conclusion by making handmade artist books. This entails a lot of color correcting, ICC profiling, and printing, all of which I can do while working from home.

With some of my fellowship money, I recently splurged on a used Jobo tank to process large-format film in daylight. My fridge is full of film that needs to be processed and edited into something cohesive. I also have some expired darkroom paper that I plan to make sun lumens with during this time at home.

Do you have any advice for artists during this time?

This pandemic has exposed how vulnerable we are as a society and inequalities that we can’t ignore any longer. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and what our postpandemic society will look like. How will artists respond to this moment? What is our responsibility for doing so? I guess it’s more a question than advice. I hope that we can absorb the magnitude of what we are living through and let it serve as a catalyst for much-needed change.

Abdo Shanan, Untitled, April 4, 2020

Abdo Shanan

Where are you right now?

I am based in Algiers. It is where I am spending these lockdown days.

What does your daily routine look like?

I try to walk as much as possible. It is really frustrating not to be able to walk as much as I did before the lockdown. Walking is an important part of my daily routine; it’s a moment of reflection for me. One thing that hasn’t changed is waking up early every day. I think that’s when I am most productive. I get some work done: research and applying for grants and funds to finish my ongoing project Dry, and to finally be able to produce a book with it. Lately, as part of my research, I have started to learn bookbinding, not that I want to be perfect at it, but I consider understanding and learning all aspects of book production an important part of research.

What are you reading, listening to, and engaging with right now?

I have been listening a lot to Tindersticks and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. For some reason, their music allows me to escape. I tried to follow some Instagram Live videos that provide interesting content about photographers and photography, but soon I became inpatient. I think part of me is refusing to accept all of this as a new reality, even if it is for a defined period. Next week, I will go back to reading The Return (2016) by Hisham Matar. I think all I am looking for is escaping.

Can you talk about the Polaroids you’ve been making and posting to Instagram?

These Polaroids came out of my need to express how I feel. I have no plans for these photos; they are just the words and phrases that I could not say in a conversation with people I am not meeting anymore. Lately, I’ve started to think that the world looks like how I felt back then, while I was working on Diary: Exile (2014–16), the same feeling of loneliness in a vast space. Only this time, I don’t think I need a flash and high-contrast black and white to show how I feel; I just have to photograph the world around me as it is, adding a bit of my feelings to the images. In this sense, the Polaroids allowed me to do that. I think it’s worth mentioning that these Polaroids are digital ones: I use a filter on my phone to make these photos. Real Polaroids becomes a luxury when you cannot travel abroad.

How do you think your work will change after the pandemic?

Not only work will change, life itself will change. On the other hand, I don’t think that the pandemic will be over anytime soon, hence I am more concerned about that period that seems to be going for longer. I cannot imagine photographing masked people—I need their full facial expressions—nor photographing people from a distance. I think about it every day. For example, I intend to finish Dry by next year. But to do so, I need to meet people, to interview them, and to photograph them at a close distance. How will it be possible? A question I need to find an answer to.

What are your concerns for artists and photographers in your community? Do you have any advice for artists during this time?

We are worried to see the government taking advantage of the situation that the pandemic created—imposing new laws restricting freedom of speech and creation under the pretext of fighting hate speech and fake news. I can see the space of freedom shrinking every day. I think as artists, we need to soldier on and work together to expand the field of the possible, as my friend Salah Badis describes freedom. We are stronger together—intellectually and physically. Power to the artists and to the souls fighting to create.

RaMell Ross, Man, which is his nickname, 2019

RaMell Ross

Where are you right now?

I’ve been solely in Providence, Rhode Island.

Are you teaching this semester?

Yes, it’s so strange. I have one class that’s been successful because it’s pretty malleable. It’s called Other Lives of Time, which I created based on this program that I made for Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. It looks at contemporary notions of time and poetics in fiction and nonfiction cinema. It’s about transporting your own personal relationship into cinema. So that one was fine. But my black-and-white photography class, which was all analog and in the darkroom, kind of bottomed out. So I had to recalibrate and do it over Zoom. Which was really bizarre. Everything becomes digital art on Zoom. In the darkroom, it’s about attention, and the slowness that process takes. The only way I could figure out a parallel within this short period of time was to ask students to build images, or think about photography as construction, and less as capture.

Do you think at the other end of this, there will be a greater appreciation for materiality?

That’s such a philosophical question for me. Digital interfaces activate an evolution toward that reality being desired and normal, and shift us away from the needs of being in the material world. Are we becoming more capable of finding the nuances? Or are we being prepped for a digital world? At what point does that become normal? It’s kind of scary.

How have things changed for your personal work?

I went into this whole pandemic quarantine thing with the big, American, capitalist, hyperproductivity drive, like, I’m going to do everything. I guess I underestimated the cultural, emotional, psychological shift that happened almost collectively. I haven’t been able to be as productive as I’d imagined. But I’ve been able to slow down in a new way. I think I’m always a slow, attention-to-detail-oriented person in terms of art-making. I photograph in Alabama exclusively, almost as a political statement to work in the South. I’m heading there in about three weeks. The internet there is so bad; I couldn’t go there and continue teaching remotely. Now I can go there, because I don’t have internet responsibilities.

What are your creative distractions at the moment?

I’m reading two really good books right now. One is called The Old Drift (2019) by Namwali Serpell. Holy shit! What a longitudinal masterpiece. I’m also reading The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) by Isabel Wilkerson. I love epics.

Can you tell us about this new picture Man, which is his nickname (2019)?

It fits into something I’m trying to distill into better language, but it’s quite natural to my work. I look at The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019), and using that as a marker, and using this image as a marker, I’m very interested in how to display notions of what it means to be a person in the world, and then a person of color in the world, in the flow of the daily relationship to regular objects. To me, the relationship between man and the machine, and between humans and technology, like who is using whom, is also the relationship between person and society, being both an agent and an object of meaning—that is kind of what I was getting at.

Jody Rogac, Kristin, 2020

Jody Rogac

Where are you right now?

Brooklyn.

What was the last assignment you had before things changed?

It was a great one! It was for Penguin, with soccer player Megan Rapinoe. She’s coming out with a memoir, so it was a portrait session with her for the cover. Shoots were getting canceled here and there, and I was waiting for this to be canceled as well, but I’m glad it wasn’t. She was scheduled to come straight to the studio from the airport; she was flying in from Texas, I think. We all just waved at each other. No one touched. This was March 12.

Right up against the stay-at-home order.

Yeah, it was a lovely one to end on.

You had a sense then that things were slowing down?

I had a shoot booked for that Monday, which had canceled. You could just feel it in the air. That anxiety was building, that tension of people being aware of the speed of the germs, the changing air around everybody.

What professional work have you had since? 

I haven’t received any assignments to do in isolation, but I’m kind of happy with that, to be perfectly honest. I’m spending the time taking a break from thinking about making work for anyone else.

What type of work do you make for yourself?

I’m taking figure-drawing classes via Zoom and getting back into that, which is something I really enjoy and never make the time for. (It’s kind of like exercising.) I’ve been working on a book edit for a long time. I have a printer here at home, so I’m working on a sequence, and as soon as businesses are open, I’ll bring the pages to get it bound to make a dummy. I have a dog, and I live about twenty minutes from Prospect Park, so I’ve been walking him there in the mornings and just making pictures—taking the time to roam around and explore and shoot for no reason except that it’s enjoyable, which is so easy to lose sight of when you’re using photography as a way to make a living.

You were one of the organizers of Pictures for Elmhurst, a fundraiser in support of Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens. The sale of prints donated by 187 artists raised $1.3 million. How did this idea start?

In the very beginning of April, I started texting with my friend Samantha Casolari. She’s Italian, but she’s lived in New York for many years. There was a similar fundraiser in Italy, for the Pope John XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, and she was asked to donate an image for that. It started like a school project, like, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do something like that for New York? At the time, Elmhurst was getting hit so hard, it was at the epicenter of everything. The need was so urgent. So she and I and a mutual friend, Vittoria Cerciello, started hitting up our network, and one thing led to another. My partner, Matthew Booth, got involved, and so did Shayna McClelland, Eliona Cela, Stefan Durgan. We had never organized or fundraised for anything. We definitely pulled all-nighters, trying to get things ready, figuring out the website, handling the outreach to artists. I’m really surprised by the result. It shaped this whole lockdown experience for me in a way I couldn’t have expected.

What are you reading or watching that has kept you going—or kept you sane?

I’m currently watching The Last Dance, the NBA documentary. It’s so good! And I’m currently reading Labyrinths (1962) by Jorge Luis Borges—I’m loving that—and I just finished Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf.

What do you think is the way forward for portraiture and editorial commissions?

There’s always going to be a need for portraiture. It’s such a relevant art form. It’s just going to depend on the logistics of being careful with distance and touching—like with my shoot with Megan. I have to hope that the assignments will start coming in soon. I find it encouraging that clients are starting to reach out.

Do you have any advice, especially for younger photographers? So many students just had their last semester waylaid by the crisis. 

I think it would be the same advice, pandemic or not. Just make the work you’re passionate about. Just be fully yourself in everything you make. There are always ways to make work. Just don’t stop.

Interviews by Brendan Embser and Cassidy Paul.

Subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

Sign up for Aperture's weekly newsletter: