As COVID-19 has interrupted daily life, people from every profession have had to figure out ways to be productive — and photographers are no exception. Each week, we’ll share stories from our members about how they’re staying mentally and technically sharp during the pandemic.
My favorite thing about being a photographer is how it allows me to meet new people and learn a little about their lives. The shelter-in-place orders pretty effectively quashed that.
This succinct sentiment from Ian Tuttle does a great job of explaining what many photographers are feeling during a time that is strangely both scary and boring. In order to get our minds off the coronavirus pandemic (as much as humanly possible, that is) we’ve had to come up with ways to keep busy. For people like Ian, that means taking photographs within the parameters of social distancing — arguably the most ubiquitous phrase of the day.
Our conversation with the San Franciscan about his personal project, “Social Distance Portraits,” has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: How has the climate changed in San Francisco since you conceptualized the project and began shooting it?
A: We started shelter-in-place and social distancing here in the Bay Area earlier than almost anywhere in the country. The first few days felt very somber, a little scary, and surreal. There was the panic buying and confusion that happened everywhere, but people remained civil.
As the pandemic has intensified and the mood across America has shifted to a more universal acceptance of how potentially destructive the virus can be, especially if we don’t all keep our distance and behave with the collective good in mind, people here in San Francisco have been grateful that we started so early. Now we’re past the shock of it all and more into the boring work of maintaining.
Q: Was there a moment of inspiration that led to the project? What was the seed?
A: I was feeling really down, plus my entire work calendar for the next three months had just evaporated. A lot of people in all kinds of professions were facing the same grim reality. I’d seen a lot of photos of empty streets, of the evenly spaced lines of people outside grocery stores, the boarded-up windows, but they all felt very exterior.
I was curious to learn how people were feeling on an individual basis, and I suspected that we all had similar feelings, and that by sharing them it would be comforting. So, that’s why I initially started doing these.
Q: Do you have a finish line in mind for it or is it ongoing?
A: I hope to keep getting out once or twice a week to do these. The project becomes more interesting as the number of people involved grows. I’m still feeling ambivalent about the safety aspect, and even though I keep things very hygienic I’m aware that I’m still one more person outside of his house in public.
Ultimately, I found that the happiness and enthusiasm that the portrait subjects bring to this makes it a worthwhile tradeoff. You can see it in the photographs. The overwhelming response is joy. I do think it will be interesting to hear the responses evolve as we all collectively move through this situation.
Q: What have been the biggest takeaways for you from doing the project?
A: That people are resilient. That when things are grim, generosity and connection triumph over selfishness and isolation. That it feels terrible not to be able to shake hands with someone, or give them a hug, or even share a laugh without worrying about spreading some invisible contagion.
Q: You asked each subject ‘what are you most afraid of?’ and ‘what gives you hope?’ — why did you pick those questions?
A: I was thinking about how to work within the social distancing constraints and there were a lot of people using the park next to my house to get fresh air, walk dogs, and exercise. I wanted to keep the interaction very brief for safety’s sake, but also make it meaningful. Almost everyone who volunteers for these smiles or laughs because they are so happy to be collaborating on something fun and creative.
But inside, the emotions are more complicated. I think fear and hope are the yin and yang of our human response to the unknown. You need fear to be appropriately cautious. You need hope as motivation to survive. Since these are such quick portrait “sittings,” I thought these two simple questions would get to the heart of the matter quickly and effectively.
Q: We’ll turn it around on you: what are you most afraid of and what gives you hope?
A: My wife is due with our second child in mid-April. This puts her in a lot of contact with the hospital system. That’s been a source of worry and fear — fear that one of us will get sick right when the baby is due. Or that the hospital will not be operating properly because it’s overloaded with patients. I’ve also worried a lot about my mom. She had a few bouts of pneumonia last year, and I worry about her catching this virus.
But even though there is a lot to be concerned about, people all around the world are doing good things, helping one another, looking for creative ways to offer support and comfort.
See more of Ian’s work at ituttle.com.
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