Last year was an incredibly eventful one for now-Denver-based Stephen Speranza. In addition to moving out west from New York, the photograpaher continued his work with his old city’s top paper, the New York Times. Stephen was kind enough to sit down with Wonderful Machine to discuss his 2020. His comments have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: You’ve been covering the COVID-19 Pandemic for The New York Times from the early days of the lockdown in NYC. Can you tell me about those early days?
A: While living in NYC, I’d been a frequent contributor to The New York Times Metro desk. A few days before the city officially went into lockdown I’d gotten my first COVID-related assignment and was asked to cruise 5th Avenue in Manhattan looking for signs of change due to the virus’s emergence. Things had already started to become eerily quiet. Over the next few weeks, I’d cover a variety of neighborhoods around the city as masks became the norm and businesses shut down. A couple of these photographs were published in the NYT’s interactive piece, “New York Was Not Designed for Emptiness.” In those early days, there was a definite heaviness in the air and the eyes of anyone you saw out on the street. Remember, we were still relatively uniformed about how this virus worked at that point, and the sense of unknown and fear could be felt around the city.
As the pandemic ramped up through the spring, I continued to contribute to the daily coverage. Aside from documenting the emptiness of NYC, I began to shoot for stories that explained more specific examples of how New Yorkers and their lives were being affected: senior centers distributing and delivering meals to avoid gatherings, a med student organizing a COVID volunteer corps, a fitness instructor transitioning to virtual sessions, tenants organizing rent strikes, things like that.
Q: What was one of the more memorable assignments from those early days?
One of the more memorable stories I worked on was that of a mortuary science professor and his two volunteer interns assisting a Queens funeral home that had been overwhelmed by the amount of deceased they were responsible for handling. Upon arrival, I was invited into the funeral home and shown to a viewing room full of cardboard caskets with hardly enough space to move around the room. It was a heartbreaking scene but a visual that truly represented the loss going on around the country. The NYT ended up selecting this photograph for their 2020 “The Year In Pictures”.
Q: As the pandemic continued into the summer, so did your coverage. Can you share more about that transition?
Well, as summer came, COVID case numbers in NYC began to go down, businesses began to reopen, and things became a bit more relaxed. As a result, my assignments began catering to this new normal. I photographed the owners of a new restaurant opening in Brooklyn for the NYT and we made the images in their beautiful, streetside outdoor dining area. For The Washington Post, I covered a Bronx barber shops reopening as it reconnected with a community hard hit by the pandemic.
While the tone was definitely lighter that summer, there were still reminders in my work that the pandemic was ongoing and far from over. One of my last assignments in NYC was for WaPo photographing a man who played his bagpipes once a week honoring those who had passed due to the virus.
Q: You relocated to Denver at the end of the summer. What inspired the move? What was it like continuing to cover the Pandemic out west?
I’d been interested in moving out west for a long time. I personally wanted better access to the outdoors for recreational purposes and the lifestyle that comes with it. The timing was weird, but things just came together for the move to happen this summer.
The change in my pandemic coverage working in the west was mostly just a factor of the differences in the place itself. Much of how a city like Denver is handling the pandemic is similar to any other city in the country, except there’s more space in the city and people have access to large natural landscapes to get out and exercise. Since moving out here, I’ve worked on stories in Denver, CO, Boulder, CO, Lincoln County, CO, Cheyenne, WY, and Wichita, KS.
Q: What are your expectations for 2021? Do you expect to be continuing to cover the pandemic?
I definitely expect to be covering the pandemic in 2021 and I already have been. On January 2, one of my photographs appeared on the front page of The New York Times for an article about a looming eviction crisis in New York City. I also had a photograph on the front page for a story about the rise in screen time among children.
See more of Stephen’s work at stephensperanza.com.
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