The Photographers Documenting a Very Weird, Violent and Tragic Year

InsideHook talks to three photographers about what it’s been like to shoot the pandemic

August 10, 2020 10:27 am
nyc street photography covid Reuben Radding
Bill Hayes

To say that coronavirus has turned everyone’s world upside down is an understatement — photographers, of course, included. When it’s your job to interact with people and spaces every day, what happens to your work and your practice when that’s no longer possible?

Curious to learn more about shooting pictures in the year that will forever be synonymous with its world-stopping virus, InsideHook spoke to three photographers about how the pandemic changed their work.

Anthony Geathers is a Brooklyn born-and-raised photographer specializing in portraiture, music, sports, documentary photography and more. He has shot for the likes of Nike, Adidas and the New York Times. During the pandemic, he noticed more and more engagement on his Instagram, especially after posting his on-the-ground black-and-white imagery of the protests against police brutality in his native borough. 

Reuben Radding is a street photographer and artist whose work has appeared in Brooks Brothers campaigns, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post. He developed a daily Corona Diary practice at the beginning of the pandemic to stay sane that has also gained traction on Instagram, and changed and progressed as protests swept through New York. 

Bill Hayes will release his fifth book, How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, on August 25. Comprising images shot between March and mid-May 2020 alongside writing about the time, the book encompasses a vision of unprecedented modern city life. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. 

These photographers often use the street as their canvas, and all were roaming the avenues when many were still inside.Now everybody’s out taking pictures and it’s fine because it’s the way it was before, but there is a small part of me that’s like, ‘Where were all you motherfuckers when…? Oh, sure, now you’re brave,’” Reuben Radding laughs, obviously joking. “But it’s such bullshit, I don’t really think that.”

Anthony Geathers

InsideHook: What has your experience been of making images during the pandemic?

Anthony Geathers: For me it’s been business as usual, just without people hiring anybody. I’ve still been making images. This pandemic really didn’t scare me. Some people might take that as being foolish, but I was in the Marine Corps and I’ve been in combat. I was like, I just can’t stay home and do nothing. I went out and scouted my neighborhood. I live in Brooklyn, New York, so I just went and checked out the whole neighborhood. I was outside every day.

I started photographing these guys on dirtbikes and four-wheelers, which I always wanted to do. Being from New York, that was big, especially in the ‘90s with the Ruff Ryders movement. This pandemic gave me that perfect opportunity to photograph a lot of these guys just ripping in and out of the city. Then the protests happened in different neighborhoods. Everybody usually heads to Manhattan, but I was like, no I gotta stay here at home and photograph what’s in my backyard. Everyday wasn’t the same thing. You’re getting standoffs with the police, black leadership speaking, people who are tapped into African spirituality out here who are saging the crowd, so it was always something there for the photographs. Brooklyn has roots in black liberation, fights for freedom, and against systemic racism, so for me it made sense to stay and photograph what was going on. I shoot a lot, so it was always like, what can I do differently today than I did yesterday? I’m always pushing myself to do that.

Bill Hayes

Reuben Radding: I don’t tend to work well with ideas. It sounds to me like what one should do. Instead I go where I want to go and figure it out later. What ended up being Corona Diary was really just a title I stuck on a post on March 14th and just decided to keep going. Much like everything else in the early days of the pandemic, I felt freed from needing to make “right” decisions about my images, because there was no way to evaluate anything. All of a sudden all of the kinds of things I usually look for were completely unavailable. There were no crowds of people, no deep interactions, no events. We were in this different world and it didn’t seem to be the kind of fodder I usually look for for pictures. It made everything boring. But because of the intensity of the context and my own fear and worry, it made everything interesting. That complete opposition of the interesting and the uninteresting was so visceral for me and made me realize I wasn’t going to be able to think harder, contextualize harder, and find answers. I was just gonna have to deal with what’s there and keep going. So that’s what I did. I found that by going out and walking, I would start to feel grounded because whatever the hell I was seeing or feeling out there, whether it was scary, worrisome or beautiful, at least it was real. Then I got really obsessed with going to all the protests I could and I’ve been photographing there. 

Bill Hayes: I had not planned to do a short book of writing and photography on the pandemic by any means. My editor proposed it and by that time things were really shutting down quickly. It felt like a tsunami approaching the United States. To a certain extent, I knew I would be doing this work anyway. It’s part of my practice to carry my camera with me when I go out and write about what I’ve observed. I tried to capture this moment in time as honestly as possible. It’s been a gift but it’s also been one of the biggest creative challenges I’ve ever had. There was a tight deadline of about six to eight weeks — we wanted to capture the beginning of the pandemic. In the beginning, so much was unknown. It was frightening, we were told to stay home, and it was okay to go out for walks and exercise, but there weren’t many people out roaming the streets looking for photographs like I was. It’s a different kind of street photography than I had ever practiced before. My street photography had been about street portraiture, where I ask permission to photograph people, and it’s in a more joyful spirit. The mood during the pandemic has been very tense. I found myself shooting empty streets and subway stations or people alone more than I ever had. The whole landscape had changed and the city had a sad, bittersweet mood.

Reuben Radding

What changed about what you wanted to photograph and how you photographed it? 

AG: My plan has always been photographing everything about black people. For me, these protests weren’t much of a change because I’ve been doing with sports, music, politics, everything about black people. The only thing that’s changed is the visibility that I’ve gotten, especially on social media. My usual work was getting visibility but not as much, but when I started photographing protests, I was doing it for me. I wasn’t doing it for anybody else. I wasn’t expecting any calls or anybody giving me work or money, I did it on my own. Usually when I photograph I put it on Instagram also, putting my own two cents on everything, so when the protests happened I was really giving my own concepts as to what was going on. People really took it to heart and people were like, “Oh shit, OK, he’s really giving us a real account of what’s going on on the ground.”

RR: A lot of what I’m consciously or unconsciously looking for when I’m out was gone. All of the ways I remain invisible or put different things between me and what I’m photographing was out the window. On a city block, there’d be one other person there staring at me [laughs]. But I needed to be out and photographing. I knew a couple of photographers who went out early on and gave up because they were like, there’s nothing to do. I refused to accept that. I thought, if I’m gonna have to take more distant photographs, maybe the challenge is to figure out how to make good distant photographs or distant photographs that matter to me. I felt so freed from needing it to be great and instead made it my survival. I started to try to envision different kinds of frames, I slowed down, and I was doing longer walks. I often go to places where there’s a lot of activity, and those places were as empty as the side streets. There became no reason not to walk down empty side streets. I saw things I’d never noticed before. I felt this intense need to witness New York for this. I had been witnessing it for 32 years. I didn’t want to miss this. 

BH: It was like using a different muscle. I felt a sense of responsibility to get it right. Especially in those early weeks, March to mid-April, the streets were pretty empty. Suddenly the city you love is just changing overnight. Taking a picture of UPS delivery drivers, maybe in earlier days that kind of picture wouldn’t have been quite so important or striking to me. But in those early days [of the lockdown], I felt like those men and women were heroes as much as the frontline workers in healthcare. I feel really glad that I captured it, that already those pictures I took in March and April seem like they’re from a time capsule. 

Bill Hayes

How do you think the work you did during the pandemic and protests will affect your future work?

AG: I’ve always used my camera and my platforms that I have to talk about Black culture. This just kicked that into overdrive. When I get back to shooting sports, to making portraits, when everything comes back full circle, there’s gonna be a lot more visibility, more projects I’ll be tapping into. The protests have brought visibility and awareness to a lot of people about what I do. It brought me to the stage. I’ll be using my platform to uplift Black people and bring things that we go through daily whether it’s positive or negative. 

RR: It’s taught me not to think I have a plan, and that that’s a good thing. My chances of whatever I call success, doing something that feels really good to me, the primary thing that seems to bring that out is just doing it. The world changes in subtle or not subtle ways and I’m just there with it. To me there’s definitely a sense of distance in the Corona Diary work I think I’ve dealt with pretty well, but it isn’t what I’ve ever been attracted to. Distance is not my bag, I want to be right up against things. I made these two zines out of that work and when I look at them, part of me feels really proud and then part of me feels, this isn’t what I was gonna try and do this year at all [laughs]. I was feeling, how many empty streets can I photograph? How many people in masks can I photograph? And wonder whether that matters. It’s just not interesting anymore, this is our life. And then I got over it. There are ups and downs. 

Bill Hayes

BH: I could probably do a whole book of photos of people on park benches in New York City [laughs]. Usually those park benches were very crowded and that was part of what made those pictures fun and quirky and just very New York. But in my early days of going out and shooting for the pandemic, when it was only social distancing that was enforced, people weren’t wearing masks in the early weeks, one of the early pictures in the book is of a woman sitting alone on a park bench looking lonely and sort of forlorn. It was a very different kind of picture.

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