Back in March of this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, hitting New York City the hardest, I decided to halt all my photo sessions. While the city was a tempting location due to the empty streets, I understood several things that helped me make this decision. In the first place, I felt at the moment it was just an unnecessary risk just for myself but also for the dancers I would be working with. Most importantly though, I didn’t want to be in the way of first responders as ambulances could be heard almost around the clock during the first months.
With the arrival of summer, however, we saw a drop in the cases and I understood it was a more prudent time to go out and create some works. However, I was still weary of using public transportation and by the same token, I wasn’t going to ask the dancers to put themselves at risk either. The solution: I procured myself an electric scooter. This way, I could travel across town and meet the dancers in their own neighborhoods. Meeting the dancers in their neighborhoods allowed me to get to know NYC in a whole new way, photographing in places I’d never even seen before after living for over 7 years in the city.
I started reaching out to dancers and they agreed to meet me following a strict physical distancing protocol. For the first two or three sessions I allowed the dancers to take off their masks for the photos. But I had to be honest with myself, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with it and would come back home and face anxiety attacks. Were they justified? Probably not considering the current science, but at the moment it was what I was feeling and I had to accept my own boundaries if I were to continue creating. So I kindly started asking the dancers to keep their masks on at all times, including for the photos.
Xiaoxiao Cao, one of the dancers I photographed for this series, who is originally from China and experienced firsthand the SARS epidemic back in 2002, also reminded me of an even more important reason to use the masks during the photos. She reminded me of my photographic role as a historian. In 10 or 20 years from now, when people see these photos, they will know and learn about what we are going through right now. Thanks to her, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in pursuing this series.
Finally, I reminded myself of the influence we can exert on others on social media. By portraying the dancers with masks, we were sending a message to others about the necessity of wearing masks to protect our communities.
The resulting images from this series exceeded any and all of my expectations. Furthermore, I feel I developed an even stronger bond with the dancers I collaborated with. On the one side, most of them were extremely thankful to be able to go out and finally create some art as all theatrical activities have been postponed in NYC until further notice. But also, we were creating with more strength and willingness than ever before. Not being able to create for such a long time only reassured us as artists, this is what we are meant to do. When we cannot do it, we feel a huge part of us hurts. Nevertheless, we found a way to create beautiful works in spite of the challenges, while also respecting and protecting our communities by staying mindful of our restrictions.
This project and all images were made possible by Adobe Lightroom. I would like to express my gratitude to them, not only for the financial support, but also for keeping me motivated and feeling like part of a community during this time. Thank you!
Special thanks to all the dancers who collaborated with me in this project:
Ian Spring, Misha Culver, Jennie Begley, Yinet Fernandez , Eriko Sugimura, Christian A Warner, Devin Loh, Lissa Nicole Smith, Derek Brockington, Laura Mendes, Maxfield Haynes, Mathieu Forget, Alia Gizzi, Khalia Campbell, Omar Nieves, Eli Raphael Gruska,Christopher Wilson, Xiaoxiao Cao, Jillian Davis, Candy Tong, Shawn Michael Lesniak, Kevin Tate, Maria Ambrose, Jane Alexandria King, Devon Louis, Erika Citrin, Sabrina Pretto, Alexandra Hutchinson, Anabel Katsnelson, Kamille Upshaw, Taylor Massa, Norbert De La Cruz, Lindsey Donnell, Omar Román de Jesús, Dylan Santos, Daphne Lee, Rafael Cañals, Da’Von Doane, Cortney Key, Rachel Secrest.
All images and text ©2020 Omar Z Robles (unless otherwise stated). All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or use without written consent from Omar Z Robles.
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Beautiful photos and very well said!