When news of the shutdowns started to make the rounds, I was in the office—three floors of what had become an eerie and quiet building occupied by me and occasionally the cleaning guy. It had been that way for a week or so. Almost everyone who had the means was leaving or preparing to leave the city, and my office was no exception.
The sudden exit of those who wanted to escape and could also afford to leave was the first visible division. And it was this class separation that would, at least for me, expose the rest of what was to come as a series of interlopers—unwanted visitors that keep showing up at the doorstep of America. This all reminded me of something James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
Despite what we frequently read in the media, there is nothing unprecedented about 2020. We are experiencing problems that have been with us for generations, problems that stem from divisions. And those divisions are rooted in money, politics, religion, race, and other things one should not talk about in polite company. But these social taboos are the very things we must talk about—and face—as Mr. Baldwin also famously said, or they will keep splitting us in two over and over again.
A couple of weeks after the stay-at-home order went into effect, the half of us who remained in the city had to navigate a familiar but unknown landscape. My neighborhood was as empty and quiet as my office had been. When I went on walks or the occasional errand, I photographed the changes I saw. I also turned my camera inside (because we were inside all the time!); it was a natural response to the confinement. I began to see repeated images and symbols, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. I realized that if I was sensitive to them, they could bolster the symbols of the past that Baldwin talked about and help me navigate what I was encountering and feeling. As Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, said, “the true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself.”
Making these photographs was a cathartic experience for me. It brought to the surface my human “constant preoccupation with pleasure and pain... our pursuit of this happiness,” as fourteenth-century Japanese writer Yoshida Kenko said. It also—thankfully—brings Merton’s new awareness that, without his and Baldwin’s help, I would not have found. This process and these writers taught me that before I say anything about what I see out in the world, I must first look inside and face myself.