All words and photos by Mariah Miranda
March 9th was supposed to be like any other Monday. As a full time freelance photographer, it’s normal to experience an onslaught of emails after 9-5ers have their restful weekend. But the word “onslaught” took on another meaning as I experienced notification after another, all announcing cancellations. In one day I experienced two months of work cancelled with no understanding when it would be safe to reschedule. May? June? People said, “We’ll see.” By that Friday, March 13th 2020, a national emergency was declared in the United States concerning the COVID-19 outbreak.
I documented a private house show concert that Saturday evening where some folks wore masks and gloves but most proceeded as normal. I sat on the couch in the living room with the manager of the band, discussing documenting a residency at the end of the month. I look back at similar conversations I had with folks during that time – we were so unaware of the magnitude to which the situation would escalate, teachers prepping their classrooms to be returned within a few weeks, folks buying cheap flights off Spirit for the summer, contractors (like myself) configuring how to make credit cards stretch until we could work again.
The first two months are a blur of panic, depression, and shock. It’s not easy to run your own business, especially one that requires human contact and large community activities. It was devastating to watch my most successful year yet completely disappear in one week.
Like everyone else, I had my eyes glued to social media, which is where I first discovered friends and colleagues across the country had conducted what they were calling “porch portraits”. I struggled immensely with figuring out how I was going to make an income to pay bills that were continuously piling up as the 6 week quarantine turned into three months. At this time, only essential workers were allowed to proceed as “usual”, and I witnessed photographers online ridicule others for doing these sessions, claiming they were putting people at risk. It was a scary time for everyone – watching our communities fall into financial ruin amidst such uncertainty. I resisted doing these sessions until my mom-ager insisted I start somewhere. I bargained with her that I would not coordinate the times, and would speak minimally to my subjects in exchange for following through on photographing these portraits.
The first sessions took place in late April, and it was shocking how awkward and uncomfortable it was to engage with my subjects and vice versa. It’s quite literally been my job for years to talk to and document strangers, yet here all parties were, avoiding eye contact and feeling mechanical with our movements. As a photographer who’s avoided doing family portraits because of feeling pressure to document in a kitschy, generic way, I was learning quickly how to interact with such a variety of people. Families with young children would run towards me only to be confused when they couldn’t hug me. It was heartbreaking to see their frustration, and I sympathized with them.
During this time in particular I wasn’t charging a sitting fee, and instead, I allowed people to make individual purchases once they saw the images later. It was my way of providing an accessible way to do portraits for people who can’t afford photography – since I understand what I do is a luxury service. And as I proceeded to book sessions, the popularity of my work spread like wildfire. I was so nervous to post the images online for fear of experiencing backlash from my photography community or other people who disagreed with what I was doing. But instead what happened was a collective spread of joy among strangers.
What makes this pandemic so different that other times like the Great Depression is our inability to be with one another. At the core, humans desire connection – it’s the root of every decision. This has been such a dark, strange time for so many people but it also has brought individuals together in an intimate honest way unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.