This fall, NBC News published a story entitled “I’m going to church more: Restaurant owners wonder whether they’ll survive winter,” which addressed the challenges faced by restauranteurs to keep their doors open through the restrictions of COVID safety protocols. The article’s images were captured by Boston-based photographer M. Scott Brauer, who took to the New London, Connecticut streets hoping to find more than just empty picnic and dining tables.
NBC News editors chose Scott for his background in documentary photography, thinking that he could find a way to turn empty tables and chairs into something a little more visually engaging. They found him through Wonderful Machine.
The restaurants weren’t all empty, of course, with the city still locked in the most cheerful of phases: phase 3. Tracking of the COVID-19 cases showed that the largest spreaders were family gatherings and youth sporting events. So, while cases began to rise once again, they refrained from locking the restaurants down, hoping that keeping them open might allow the town some semblance of financial stability.
This general setting — a small city enduring a pandemic that has everyone simultaneously on edge and exhausted — isn’t ideal for a photo shoot, especially when even under normal circumstances most small business owners aren’t entirely comfortable sitting down to have their photos taken.
I think I have a knack for photographing subjects that aren’t necessarily easy to photograph and people who aren’t used to being in front of a camera
So Scott made the trek from Boston to New London, roughly 2 hours of driving time. Having grown up in Montana, a 2-hour drive one way is an easy day trip in Scott’s mind. However, the assignment was only for one day of shooting, shrinking his timeframe to a few hours in the afternoon after the restaurants opened and before the sun set too low.
With the realization that many restaurants were taking most of their customers indoors to dine, another complication presented itself.
The client said that their company policy during the pandemic is not to enter any indoor areas. In this case, some of the restaurants were operating at 75% capacity indoors, meaning that most people weren’t using the outdoor patios that the restaurants had set up.
Scott had to take advantage of every shot he could get of people dining or simply sitting outside of restaurants. Focusing a bit more on the restaurant owners’ portraits, he scheduled a new portrait every 30 minutes for 2 hours, working around a subject’s availability and allowing for travel time between locations.
Despite the time constraints and COVID-related complications, Scott relished being able to roam around talking to people and learning about the town’s history. Scott even had the opportunity to shoot Mayor Michael Passero, who passed along some valuable insight into the town’s history and was able to bear witness to the community’s investment in itself.
The people I met in this story not only want their own businesses to succeed but all businesses in town. That kind of civic pride can be infectious.
See more of M. Scott Bauer’s work at mscottbrauer.com.
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