April 2, 2020
I spend the day reading, glued to the screen. By the end of it my head is spinning. Today, as the globally confirmed cases of Covid-19 exceed one million, all of the most complex issues humanity has been grappling with for decades have found a common thread, and are racing around the web with their hair on fire. Social inequality, social disconnect, the failure of the health system, democracy and totalitarianism, fake news, surveillance, climate change, religion, finance, incarceration, freedom, death, the end of civilization.
I read that gang members in El Salvador are threatening people to make them stay home, because they know that no respirators would be given to any of them during an epidemic. I read that we won’t go back to the life we knew before 2020. I read that we’ll weaken our immune systems by staying inside. I read that this is the revolution. I read about false positives and false negatives, plasma, immunity, relapse and a million acronyms, now that everyone of us started juggling medical terms only vaguely knowing what they even mean.
In a society that’s never been this obsessed with self-analysis in the past, present and future tenses, there’s food for thought. Perhaps a bit too much, or too soon, or too altogether. I guess this happens when all of the energies we normally invest in our lives stay trapped into our heads. It’s what’s happening to me, at least.
As author Charles Eisenstein wrote in a recent essay: “I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can.”
While I try to embrace not knowing and stop my head from spinning, I do feel a responsibility as a photographer to shoot work that can only be shot right now. I ask myself what I want to remember about these weeks, the moment when everything changed, and how it will be understood through images 25 years from now. Most of it is complicated, but one thing I know: I’ve seen thousands of images of a completely empty New York City these days. Every rare time I’m outside I see people everywhere. A couple days ago I rode the subway horrified, with 15-20 people in my car.
While it is true that some office areas of Manhattan might feel quite deserted, walking the streets in most residential neighborhoods you need to look attentively to find a completely empty spot to point your camera to. The emptiness of New York reigns in the briefs requesting images and on the front pages of most publications. Photographers feel compelled to shoot the images that will be published, and therefore a simplified idea of New York during this emergency spreads to other parts of the country and abroad. In a moment when we seem to be asking ourselves so many questions, one would think this was not too hard to figure out.
My instinct is usually trying to understand things through people, but whenever the photos revolve around people it does get more complicated. In a recent interview with The Everyday Projects, Ghanaian photographer Nana Kofi Acquah remarks how little graphic material has come from the documentation of tens of thousands of deaths in western countries. He asked himself if, once Covid-19 spreads more widely in African countries, the story will be told with the same tact.
I’m fascinated again by this virus becoming the common denominator of all of society’s eternal debates. I imagine this is not surprising when a crisis this big hits the world, but it had never happened in my lifetime. When I was a child I remember asking my grandmother questions about World War II and she would never really answer, much to my disappointment. Part of me is relieved that she’s not around today to see this, home alone and terrified. Yesterday I saw an old woman in a car window, and thought of her.
Song: Yazz Ahmed – Carry Me
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at International Center of Photography. She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland or in the UK.