In the past year the face covering became a part of most outfits and sometimes a statement in itself, as New Yorkers found a way to express themselves even through their concealment. Masks were needed for basic protection, but gradually have been transformed into more complex objects with multiple functions: message communication; expressing one’s mood, personality, ethnicity or community; signifying respect or recognition, indicating a political stance.
With a background in classics and anthropology I have long been interested in issues of identity and self-representation and in how people live and manage everyday challenges. As a street photographer I have followed with curiosity how people cope with the pandemic, dealing with the unknown. I was here on September 11 and during Sandy’s aftermath, and last March I saw in people’s expressions and movement their anguish, their incredulity, and confusion that matched my own. I walked around different New York neighborhoods every day and noticed the progression in more and more people starting to wear their feelings on pieces of decorated cloth.
My project of documenting people wearing masks is ongoing, and so far it comprises about 600 images. This small object has become a symbol of this time. Some images from the series have recently been acquired by the Smithsonian Museum as part of the first set of multiple pandemic-related digital acquisitions. Two COVID-19 related photographs are part of New York Responds: The First Six Months at the Museum of the City of New York, and one (May 10) mask was part of the #ICPconcerned group show.
When possible, I talk to people about the masks they wear since they often have a story. I have noticed that people are attached to the narrative of how the mask was made or chosen. Because I never plan these portraits, each photographed mask reminds me of a specific route I walked during the past year; it marks a point in my history when I was learning to navigate the pandemic and found sparks of connections that help me feel grounded and human.
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Author: Francesca Magnani