Photographing Life in Flux: Image-makers Document this Time of Hyper-change
Aug 31, 2020 04:07PM
By Leo Adam Biga
Cover photo by Bill Sitzmann
From left: Eric Francis, Justin Limoges, Joshua Foo, Lauren Abbell, Lasha Goodwin
As quarantine forced schools to close, nonessential employees to work from home or file unemployment, and public accommodations to shutter last spring, independent photography projects launched to document the tumult. During the pandemic, photographers took to chronicling another seismic change—the justice movement.
The impulse to capture life amid a health scare and social upheaval is expressed in four distinct Omaha projects whose creatives share an urgency to record history. Each endeavor employs the added value of marrying a subject’s own words with the photographer’s images to produce intimate vignettes.
Collectively, the hundreds of photos and stories from diverse walks of life represent a city mosaic unlike any other. With social distance, isolation, anxiety, and adaptation to new norms as context, subjects are pictured at home, their place of business, or in public spaces. The portraits show individuals, couples, and families enduring, alone yet together, afraid yet expectant, in this unsettled time.
Link to their individual stories here.
Eric Francis—Isolation in the 402
Photojournalist Eric Francis saw a blank slate on his professional calendar after COVID-19 hit. He informally began shooting pictures of friends posed in their lived environments. This took on new meaning when he cultivated their stories and expanded the effort beyond his social circle.
“It felt important—with a story and a narrative revealing itself,” he says. “It just felt like a moment in time that needed to be marked and this being a good way of doing it.”
Francis said he asked people to share how they were feeling in as few or as many words as they wanted, though he did ask that they “stay away from politics.”
“A common theme is gratitude and hope that things are going to be better,” he added. “That’s encouraging. I didn’t expect to have that much of it.”
He also implements motifs throughout, such as being sure to include house numbers.
Francis also asked participants to turn on their porch lights, no matter the time of day, to symbolize a beacon of promise. “I always try to frame people within a frame. Their living space is just as important to the composition as the people themselves,” he said. “It may not be their forever home, but in the history of their lives, it’s the place where they rode this out.”
Fujifilm sent him a medium format digital camera to use. “It makes a really detailed image. I thought if this ever winds up as a gallery show or book I want to make the pictures big so all the details get noticed.”
His stark black-and-white renderings give added weight to the compositions and captions.
“I’ve always been drawn to black-and-white. It’s simple, it’s clean, it cuts out some of the distractions color can provide. The composition and connection to the subject have to be strong. There’s no allowance for a weak image.”
Should new outbreaks trigger mass quarantine, Francis said, “I will probably pick this thing up full force and roll with it again because there’s going to be a whole other set of images to be made.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, Francis also covered the Black Lives Matter protests that saw masses of people ignore quarantine to demand justice. His portraits of protest fold neatly into his project.
“I think it’s going to go down as a really important weekend in the history of Omaha that was part of the change.”
Isolation in the 402 may be the start of a new direction in his career. “It seems like the perfect time to explore new ideas.”
Lasha Goodwin—PORCHtraiture: Connection in Quarantine
P.J. Morgan Real Estate agent Lasha Goodwin has been taking photos since childhood. Combining land use economics expertise with her passion for historical preservation and her legacy Black family background, her project documents how North Omaha residents are “coping with the pandemic” minus normal socialization.
“We very much so live in consequence of one another,” she said, “so the fact that because of COVID we’re apart, there’s suffering. An essential life component is missing. But with technology, we can still get information and connect.
“We’re living in a very imperfect circumstance. Our hashtag, well-researched, data-based society has been stumped by nature, and it’s been a minute. There’s a certain authenticity about that.”
Goodwin’s portraits depicting folks standing their ground at home or at unity gatherings brim with color and life. She tries catching informal details that reveal people’s resiliency or fragility.
“There’s nothing like the real thing of the moment you experience something. I’m trying to convey what did it feel like when I interviewed them. Many are grateful for the change of pace and the availability for other things like family dinners or hobbies. There are also themes of fear and how weird this time is.”
She devised her project after coming to terms with her own trauma.
“I was in a Zoom wellness committee meeting at work and everyone began to share what we’re experiencing during [the] pandemic—emotional highs and lows. And it was in that moment I realized I was actually struggling, and I wanted to know how other people were coping.” ›
Gathering the images and stories continued to remind her of the real threat of illness and the vital need for justice. It’s also helped her face her own insecurities and strengths.
“Prior to this project, I was taking pictures of things, not people,” she said. “When it comes to capturing people, I had this genuine fear. But communication [has] never been a challenge for me. I’m a talker. I love people. I love conversing with people.”
Before, she mostly took pictures with a cell phone. Now she’s using a DSLR camera. She’s still learning, but likes the results.
“I’m a perfectionist. I feel proud of myself that I’ve stepped beyond my fear of imperfection.”
Goodwin submitted a selection of her pandemic-related photography to The Durham Museum’s permanent collection, some of which was featured on their social media. She is also considering an exhibition.
“It’s important to cultivate stories of people who have experience with places and spaces,” she said. “I’m always looking for moments to capture in consideration for the future. I know as a collector of experiences, I will always make room for taking pictures.”
View her project on Instagram: @lifeisgoodwin_photography (#PORCHtraiture: Connection in Quarantine).
Joshua Foo and Lauren Abell—Right Here, Right Now
Joshua Foo and Lauren Abell fix the subjects of their project in stills and videos, respectively. They often profile restaurateurs, chefs, waiters, and kitchen purveyors because Foo is a food photographer with deep industry ties to folks adversely impacted by the pandemic. He and Abell intentionally captured the poignancy of once-bustling eateries turned empty, quiet spaces. The resulting textured images and confessional reveals feel immediate and intimate.
He and Abell intentionally captured the poignancy of once-bustling eateries turned empty, quiet spaces. The resulting textured images and confessional reveals feel immediate and intimate.
“It started with photo essays I posted on my personal Instagram account,” Foo said. “Lauren joined doing video work. I think we did close to 70 interviews in one month, capturing a lot of stories, going with the flow of whatever was happening—from the pandemic to the protests. We’ve done some interviews since the protests. The movement’s affected the community, mostly in a positive way. People are talking about it because it’s on their mind.
They are also following the way restaurants are adapting and places reopening. Foo added, “I think it’s something that just all blends together. We just want to be conduits for everyone’s voices to be heard.” “It started with photo essays I posted on my personal Instagram account,” Foo said. “Lauren joined doing video work. I think we did close to 70 interviews in one month, capturing a lot of stories, going with the flow of whatever was happening—from the pandemic to the protests. We’ve done some interviews since the protests. The movement’s affected the community, mostly in a positive way. People are talking about it because it’s on their mind.
“This is kind of a little window into what people in the industry are going through,” Abell said. “We’ve had several people mention that it’s kind of a therapy session for them. It is for us, too.”
Abell said people are optimistic that on the other side of this pandemic, the community will be stronger. “Hearing people talk about hope for the future reminded me there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
New stories have continued to emerge, and this pair of collaborators—he’s the extrovert, she’s the introvert—have expanded their vision beyond food to other fields. The project could birth several series.
“I think it will continue to evolve even beyond COVID,” Foo said.
Making time for the project may get challenging as these freelancers pick up more paid gigs. “But the project is still our top priority,” he said.
The team includes producer Jesse Hassler and line producer Sam Foo (Joshua’s brother).
The project has attracted attention from the James Beard Foundation, and a local library wants to archive it. Foo and Abell said they hope to adapt it into a documentary. A gallery show and book are also on the table.
View their project at righthererightnowproject.com.
Justin Limoges—Stay Home, Wave Hi
When commercial photography assignments disappeared with the advent of COVID-19, Justin Limoges knew he wasn't alone in seeing his work vanish and his life revolve around home. So he started visiting friends to check in and snap a quick pic. Those simple drive-by reconnections proved more than he bargained for.
“There was such good feedback from so many people that I decided to make an Instagram account to share it,” he said. “And it really struck a chord. The way it grew happened organically. It just took on its own life.” When commercial photography assignments disappeared with the advent of COVID-19, Justin Limoges knew he wasn’t alone in seeing his work vanish and his life revolve around home. So he started visiting friends to check in and snap a quick pic. Those simple drive-by reconnections proved more than he bargained for.
Word of his project spread through a six-degrees-of-separation grapevine. “It’s amazing how in isolation so many of us were connected even though we were apart.” “There was such good feedback from so many people that I decided to make an Instagram account to share it,” he said. “And it really struck a chord. The way it grew happened organically. It just took on its own life.” When commercial photography assignments disappeared with the advent of COVID-19, Justin Limoges knew he wasn’t alone in seeing his work vanish and his life revolve around home. So he started visiting friends to check in and snap a quick pic. Those simple drive-by reconnections proved more than he bargained for.
He pushed to keep up with the fluid environment. “Everything was changing so quickly with the whole situation.”
Though COVID-19 has meant uncertainty, he said, it has also meant “a silver lining of spending more time together and having more intentional conversations with friends and family.”
He is intent on being true to people’s lived reality without adornment, though he does ask subjects to wave and smile as a kind of hello from the homefront signature for his Stay Home, Wave Hi project.
“It’s like a slice of life. I’m seeing everybody through the same lens to just capture what they’re doing and where they’re at right now.”
Asked by the Refugee Empowerment Center to take photos of local refugee communities, he’s integrated those images, along with pictures of social justice activism, into the project.
“It’s personally gratifying to be able to do work that I love,” Limoges said.
It’s even better when it resonates with others.
He said he intends to share his work in a gallery show.
Visit stayhomewavehi.com for more information.
This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.