Six days out, one day in.
For Lori Hawkins, the words became a mantra. They were her schedule, a repetitive routine. A source of comfort and reassurance, stress and depression. An escape, a homecoming, her sense of normalcy.
For the last six months, that one sentence defined her life. And it has led to the most fulfilling photography series of her 20-year career.
“I feel like I’m creating my best work ever,” Hawkins said from her home in Bridgehampton. “I feel like I’m more focused on telling stories.”
Primarily drawn to issues at the intersection of human rights, post-conflict development and the empowerment of women in marginalized societies, Hawkins has reported from the frontlines of Liberia’s ongoing transition to democracy — following its civil war and the Ebola epidemic — as well as rural hospitals in Kenya, where doctors battle high rates of maternal deaths during childbirth.
But on March 11, her attention shifted to home, New York City, the burgeoning new epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Ten days later, Hawkins packed up her car, said goodbye to her husband and their two daughters, and left the East End for the two-hour journey back to their apartment on the Upper East Side, setting in motion a monotonous blueprint: six days out in Bridgehampton, one day in New York, and repeat.
Back on the East End, Hawkins would isolate herself from family and friends, imposing a strict quarantine to protect the ones she loved and to ensure she could continue work too important to walk away from, despite having to pull herself from the tranquility and warmth of her Bridgehampton home and back into the harsh realities of the pandemic, week in and week out.
“I knew I was going from a place that was safe, a place that was happy, where I was there with my girls — even I felt like I was protecting them — to suddenly every minute of that drive, I had to pull myself into knowing what I would see,” she said. “And knowing every time I went in, it was getting worse.”
In solitude, each drive gave Hawkins the time to make a mental shift — to ready herself for a transition from safety into darkness. For those two hours, she would listen to the radio, or an audio book, and she would count the hearses.
The mourners in the follow cars were men and women of every race and age, carrying the same sorrow, pain and heaviness in their faces. And the closer she got to her apartment — its views of Central Park replaced by a makeshift tent hospital, the sounds of Mt. Sinai Hospital audible from her bedroom — the heavier hearted she felt, too.
“I would go into my apartment and be reminded immediately of the death around me,” she said. “It was the visuals of the ambulances arriving. It was the audio of the sirens non-stop. And then when there wasn’t a siren, there was the hum of the refrigerated trucks outside. So even when it was quiet, the hum was a constant reminder that people are dying.”
From behind her camera, shooting and witnessing the pandemic felt more manageable. It gave Hawkins a sense of purpose, in spite of the emotional and logistical challenges. With most storefronts closed and limited access to a bathroom, she barely ate or drank as she roamed the unrecognizable streets of New York for six hours at a time, photographing the deserted subway, restaurants and Times Square, the rush of hospital arrivals and overcrowded funeral homes, the dead bodies on gurneys stuck in limbo.
These nightmarish scenes would jolt Hawkins awake in the middle of the night, wiping her tears as she meandered toward her dining room windows to watch the activity at the hospital.
She wanted to be there for New York. She didn’t want to abandon her city. But she knew her mental health was deteriorating.
“There was one moment that I was sitting on my living room floor and I was packed up and ready to go home, but I felt the need to stay,” she said. “And I just sat there, and I’m getting teary-eyed just talking about it, I just had to put my head in my hands and just sit there and cry. ”
As more photographers began to flock to the same hospitals and funeral homes, Hawkins struck out to cover a story that wasn’t being told, which led her to a mosque in Coney Island that she had visited last year. This time, a group of men were standing outside and she approached them, assuming it was prayer time.
Except it was a funeral.
Inside, she was granted permission to photograph the washing and shrouding of a Muslim body, and met Imam Ahmed Ali, who was working tirelessly to bury the dead. Their connection was immediate, and he invited her to follow him to several cemeteries in New Jersey, where she photographed six funerals in one day.
“I didn’t want to be a photographer that was shooting the same thing as everyone else. I wanted to make sure that if I was there, risking my life, away from my family, I wanted it to be meaningful work,” Hawkins said. “Covering the funerals gave me a little power to continue, and I don’t know if it put my mind at ease, or rested my mind. There was something peaceful about the end of life and witnessing a burial.”
With a renewed mental state, she dove back into pandemic coverage, which would come to a screeching halt in just one day. First, she learned that unrefrigerated U-Haul trucks were being used to store the dead, and then, an unexpected encounter completely unraveled her, while sitting in her car at a red light on 96th Street.
“I looked over to my left and there was a pigeon lying on its side with another pigeon prodding it to get up,” she said, her voice hitching at the memory. “And it broke me. I literally looked at the pigeon and I was so tired of death and I just started crying. It was so bad. It was just the idea of death and that we’re all here, and we’re all losing people.”
Just as Hawkins made the decision to spend more time on the East End and less time in New York, activists took the streets in protest of the murder of George Floyd — and she wasted no time in being there with her camera for the resurgence of the civil rights movement.
On May 30, Hawkins met the protestors and marched with them for eight hours — countless miles uptown, downtown and cross-town — into the early evening. Physically exhausted with aching, blistered feet, she hailed a taxi, rolled down the window with her gloved hand and took in the city as it sped by.
It was when they passed 45th Street and she looked into Times Square when she saw flashing lights and commotion, and immediately hopped out. She ran to Broadway, a cacophony of chaos and tension.
“Everyone get back!” the police, dressed in riot gear, shouted at protesters, who met them with hurled bottles and demands for justice. Mid-photo, Hawkins felt hands on her body and her feet left the ground, as a policeman picked her up and moved her back 20 feet.
Taking a few seconds to recover from the shock, she continued to shoot for another three hours, and then four more separate days of protests before stepping out of the way for Black photographers.
“There was a movement at the time that Blacks should be covering their story,” she said. “They could see it from a different light, they were better at it, so I was happy to turn it over and not shoot.”
Instead, Hawkins retreated into her space on the East End — more specifically, her garage, where she had installed a sheet of white seamless paper and casually started a new pandemic portrait series a few weeks earlier.
A short walk to her new studio had finally replaced her anxiety-ridden, two-hour drive. And there, she seriously got to work.
“I really started the pandemic portrait project in my home in Bridgehampton because I needed a reason to stay,” she said. “I felt like without another project, I would continue going down the same path. It wasn’t until I started shooting portraits in my garage that I felt this weight lifted.
“There was light, literally and figuratively, and I wanted to shoot people in a minimalist type of light,” she continued. “I wanted to remove the background. I just wanted to see the people, the faces and, really, life. I’m photographing life versus death.”
The series started with a gardener and deliverymen, as she invited them into her garage to sit for portraits. Her daughters became her subjects, then their friends and parents, and word quickly spread about her project.
“I wanted to become very minimalistic,” she said. “In my photos, I wanted to capture all walks of life, and I didn’t want their houses to be significant, as to their lifestyle. I wanted to photograph everybody the same, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”
Dozens upon dozens of locals have flocked to her, including artists, musicians, journalists and fellow photographers, recent high school graduates and retirees, a banker, a gemologist, a horse trainer and a beekeeper, a birth doula and a death doula. The list goes on and on, she said.
“The pandemic portraits series has made me think about life in general and what it means to be alive, and to not focus on the little things anymore, to focus on the bigger picture,” she said. “It’s helped me slow down.”
Each session begins with her shooting digitally on a Canon 5D Mark IV. She asks her subjects questions, which she records for audio, and gets to know them better before moving to a medium-format film camera, her Hasselblad 503CW, that she cranks after each photo. Her friend, Meagan Ouderkirk, helped with the project in the beginning, asking the subjects the questions, which allowed her to snap away.
The shoot ends with her large-format Linhof Master Technika, which forces her to stop, think, frame and release the shutter to expose the film from under her black cape — a process that has produced a body of work that Hawkins sees someday as a magazine spread, a gallery show, or perhaps a book.
“With the pandemic portrait project, I assumed there would be an end,” she said. “Being an artist and a photographer, not having an end in sight has made me have to rethink an ending. At what point am I done with the project? I don’t know. How do I end my pandemic portrait project, or do I? I think the answer is, I don’t end it. I keep shooting.”
Contributed to first place Writer of the Year award, New York Press Association, 2020
Judge’s comments: “This writer handled a diverse set of topics beautifully, mixing an investigative approach with rich storytelling and a human touch to produce in-depth news features with high community impact and interest. The writer understands that all great stories, though built on solid foundational facts and data, are about people’s experiences – their joys and sorrows, their fears and triumphs.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express Magazine