Finding Peace and Purpose in Panic

Sure, anyone who has seen a disaster movie has drifted into thought about what it would really be like to experience a global disaster. You know, not just a Nor’easter that has you stuck inside for 3 days, bored of repetitive TV, less-than-engaging original programming and endless bowls of cereal, all because you refused to believe the weatherperson was right this time around. For the first time in our lifetime, we are seeing something that we truly cannot compare to anything we have yet to experience. I quickly got over the hump of what is fact and what is overreaction, realizing that regardless of the (as of yet) unknown truth, the implications of what tomorrow may bring have landed us in the predicament we are in…which is history in the making. All major sports leagues canceled, the stock market crippled, domestic air travel grounded, quarantines, stay-in-place orders, major cities shut down entirely across the world; it doesn’t take much deep thought to understand that these are shaky, if not scary, times.

With the possibility of an all-out NYC quarantine looming, I did what any street photographer would: I loaded up my gear and hit the streets to capture what had become of arguably the greatest, most bustling city in the world. In short, it was eerie. Streets normally abuzz with car horns and sirens, sidewalks packed and bike messengers whizzing by….silent. I walked up a downtown block and heard the echo of a handful of teenagers laughing in the street with no background noise to drown it out. Whole stretches of blocks empty, or reduced to one passerby every few minutes. This isn’t the city I know, but it’s still the city I love. And it took a historic pandemic to make me realize it.

I always thought it was the people who made me love New York City. I remember the guys playing the shell games in Times Square, and jewelry hawkers opening lapels to reveal their daily offering; they are my earliest memories of my great love affair with New York in the eighties. Even those who have no style still, oddly, have style in New York, and those dressed to the nines happen to shine just a little bit brighter. But with the streets stripped of its characters, it was time for the city to put on a different kind of show. Undressed, except for a cloak of vulnerability, the city I hold deep in my heart shone ever brighter. Maybe it was the very silence and emptiness in which the vision of beauty was born. After all, those of us who live here know it’s a rare sight to behold. Maybe the situation itself plays into some morbid lust for chaos–one that anyone who dreads boredom and opens up to their truth will admit exists–and the very thought of capturing a world seemingly on the precipice of Armageddon draws its own twisted intrigue. No matter the reason, lifting my camera to document what’s taking place was therapeutic. 

I spent a single afternoon and evening capturing only what moved me. I wasn’t out to tell any particular story–no painting a picture of my beliefs, or shifting my shots in lieu of a particular narrative; I let the city speak. I let it speak to me in a way it never has before, because, frankly, I have never experienced my home in this way. And it was sublime. When it wasn’t arresting architecture standing regally atop barren streets, ‘twas the simple charm of flowering trees dancing against weathered brick; deserted fruit stands and graffitied gates ominously appealing to the artists’  awakening in darkness. I marveled at millions being forced inside, even more intrigued at those who has ventured outside. But mostly, I reveled in the unbreakable framework of this concrete jungle. For every time Mother Nature tears down humankind’s creations, the heart of humanity comes together and builds back up. We humans  have a way of coming together regardless of differences when adversity surfaces. This time, though, Mother Nature has dealt us the blow, and our great city stands ever tall to remind its citizens that it, too, will be here when we recover from this.

As for me, I found a piece of myself in this despair. I found peace within myself in this despair. Through the unknown, I settled into a strangely comforting soundness of mind. I don’t know what is going to happen 24 or 48 hours from now, but I have never felt more sure of my vision as a creative. It isn’t cohesive bodies of work, or gaining recognition from the industry at large, as I had once thought. It is simply immersing myself in a feeling, and being able to express that emotion to others, so that they, too, can experience a moment the way I do. I came to realize that the single greatest accomplishment my work can bring is to transcend the visual elements of a photo and turn that simple act of seeing into feeling. Through the numbness of the reality we are facing, I felt each of the photos taken, and hope that translates to those who view them. May the despair resonate, and the beauty of a city on its knees be embraced with reverence rather than repudiation…for in times of darkness shine the brightest lights.  

Note: This piece was first written 3/15/20, when this situation was all very new, and before social distancing guidelines were instituted. The photos below were documented over the next week, as I made the personal decision, after a week of documenting outdoors, to play my part in helping get through this crisis as fast as possible, without further complicating the jobs and endangering the lives of those who are “essential” to this city powering through this. 

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