The Faces of Moms Who Bore the Burden of the Pandemic
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As a freelance photographer, I was contacted by the New York Times in February to take a series of portraits of 15 Los Angeles mothers who had been banned from their jobs because of the pandemic.
I had become a mother during the pandemic, so this story hit me especially. I had lost some work when the coronavirus closed the country and it scared me to start motherhood while record numbers of women were leaving the workforce.
As soon as I made up my mind to take on the assignment, my editor Crista Chapman and I realized that this would be difficult to do. I worked in Florida for a few months and it would take me at least a week in California, and my doctor advised against being away from my breastfeeding child for several days. Also, Los Angeles County was just beginning to recover from a devastating wave of Covid-19, so the original plan for me to photograph everyone in their homes or in an open studio was abandoned.
I thought I would have to hand the job off all together, which felt particularly ironic. But I didn’t want to give up, so I decided to do creative and pitched remote portrait sessions with the women. I knew this could be a little trickier since all of our subjects were busy mothers who didn’t have much time to study technology. To make sure I could do this, I did a practice lesson with my sister-in-law and her children. I could use these pictures as a step-by-step guide for all of the sessions and Crista agreed with the idea.
I sent an email and called each woman with the general schedule for the photoshoot and then jumped straight to work.
I set up a video call, usually with my daughter on my lap, so a different kind of intimacy quickly developed. We could identify with each other as mothers, which broke any awkwardness felt by FaceTiming with a stranger. My daughter would giggle, her child would put a stuffed animal in front of the camera, and we would tell stories about what we had been through in the past year.
While we were talking, I let each woman show me around her room and show me everything that reminded her of life before Covid. This usually took about 30 minutes while figuring out the lighting and composition. Once we settled on the spot, I had her put her camera on whatever she could find – a chair, a bookcase, a laptop stand, or a kitchen table. Then I would leave her with her children.
The women set up the camera while I gave instructions. Sometimes I would have a child, husband, or translator hold the phone and help me. I kept clicking the record button.
A big part of my process is observing body language and documenting how people occupy space with minimal guidance. Typically, in order to create organic, intimate images that tell a story, I need to share physical space with the people I am photographing. Long-distance shots created a completely new dynamic.
I usually work on creating pictures with a sense of intimacy and closeness, and by creating distant photos in this way, I was able to (virtually) walk into these women’s homes and capture their daily lives with their children in a new way and creating really intimate portraits that were much more immediate than they would have been if we had taken the photos personally as planned.
I wanted to capture the feeling that many of us have communicated with family and friends on our phones and computers over the past year, and this approach offered a different level of engagement.
Since shooting, I’ve kept working while raising our daughter. I think about these women a lot and wonder how they all feel when life in Los Angeles opens up again. I don’t take the job I’ve got for granted and I hope we all will remember the women who are still at home and still looking after the kids while their lives are on hold.