In the past year the face covering became a part of most outfits and sometimes a statement in itself, as New Yorkers found a way to express themselves even through their concealment. Masks were needed for basic protection, but gradually have been transformed into more complex objects with multiple functions: message communication; expressing one’s mood, personality, ethnicity or community; signifying respect or recognition, indicating a political stance.
With a background in classics and anthropology I have long been interested in issues of identity and self-representation and in how people live and manage everyday challenges. As a street photographer I have followed with curiosity how people cope with the pandemic, dealing with the unknown. I was here on September 11 and during Sandy’s aftermath, and last March I saw in people’s expressions and movement their anguish, their incredulity, and confusion that matched my own. I walked around different New York neighborhoods every day and noticed the progression in more and more people starting to wear their feelings on pieces of decorated cloth.
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My project of documenting people wearing masks is ongoing, and so far it comprises about 600 images. This small object has become a symbol of this time. Some images from the series have recently been acquired by the Smithsonian Museum as part of the first set of multiple pandemic-related digital acquisitions. Two COVID-19 related photographs are part of New York Responds: The First Six Months at the Museum of the City of New York, and one (May 10) mask was part of the #ICPconcerned group show.
When possible, I talk to people about the masks they wear since they often have a story. I have noticed that people are attached to the narrative of how the mask was made or chosen. Because I never plan these portraits, each photographed mask reminds me of a specific route I walked during the past year; it marks a point in my history when I was learning to navigate the pandemic and found sparks of connections that help me feel grounded and human.