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Street Diaries 2: Beacons of Hope

A brief perspective on how Chattanoogans are responding to COVID-19, from my lens.

The last few months have been a trying time for countless people.

Before the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States, I was challenging myself almost daily to go downtown, befriend strangers and take their photos. Having a camera around my neck gave me the perfect excuse to approach someone waiting on their bus or having a smoke break, and learn a little bit about their story—their passions, struggles, and the roads that led them to Chattanooga.

When information began trickling down about COVID-19, so much of what people shared with me was overshadowed by the virus. Folks were afraid of getting sick, losing their jobs and their insurance, not being able to support their families. My homeless friends feared they’d be forgotten, that shelters and kitchens would close down and they’d be hung out to dry without the resources they needed. There was lots of fear and uncertainty.

But there was also hope. Chattanoogans were working hard to keep local businesses running, and families were still out enjoying the sunshine. Their actions said in a resounding, collective voice, “We’re in this together.”

I decided that I wouldn’t let the health crisis stop me from engaging with the people in my community and documenting the challenges we shared—as long as I could do it safely.

Connecting with strangers through a surgical mask and six feet of open air was difficult, though. Especially when everyone seemed to be on high alert, even paranoid. Suddenly the approach I’d worked so hard to become comfortable with, getting up close and personal, was much less an option.

But sometimes creative limitations can yield powerful results. I began experimenting with black and white film, and using the open spaces surrounding my subjects to convey a sense of isolation. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all felt lonely or scared at some point during this pandemic. I certainly have. But seeing so many people dealing with hardships greater than my own, and overcoming them, constantly reminds me that I’m not alone and that there’s hope.

I think it’s important for artists trying to shine a light on our situation to embrace the struggles and the negative feelings, and to convey them in their work. We can’t fully empathize with others if we only share in our triumphs. We have to share in the adversities, too.

On occasion, I’m lucky to find subjects sitting alone, isolated enough to approach without invading anyone’s personal space. Most people seem eager to chat and have their portrait made. They treat our human interactions like a commodity in high demand.