Art class would normally be the perfect place to help teenagers process some of the heavy issues brought out by the pandemic — from social isolation and scary economic times to the racial disparities laid bare by the virus and the deaths of loved ones. Kids could sketch, paint and sculpt their ideas and emotions.
But students at Benito Juarez Community Academy weren’t going to have access to any of those materials during remote learning, so art teacher Liz Winfield got creative.
“[I] sort of had to make do with what I figured most kids would have at home” said Winfield. Basically, a cell phone. She launched a photography unit, students learned about what makes for a good portrait, and then they got busy.
The work they produced provides an intimate look at the pandemic’s impact on a hard-hit community through teenagers’ eyes. Juarez students hail from Latino immigrant neighborhoods disproportionately affected by COVID-19 cases and deaths. Their photography features empty streets, pandemic litter, home altars built for the Day of the Dead.
“Many of the portraits commented on the world being very different,” said Winfield. They captured their neighborhood devoid of people. They pointed their cameras at trees, the sky, nature. “Those became portraits of their inner musings, portraits of their emotions, I think,” she said.
Winfield — who says her own normally optimistic outlook has been tried during this pandemic — was struck by the hopeful nature of many students’ photos. One, by senior Leslie Corona, is shot in a dark alley behind her home in Back of the Yards. At the end of the block, a single street light illuminates in the distance. “Keep fighting until you get there to the light,” Corona writes in a reflection paired with the photo, which she titled “Hope.”
Winfield said she thinks it’s been therapeutic for students to share their work with each other. “Sometimes when we’re feeling all shut in and feeling anxious, it’s hard to process some of those feelings. But when you see someone else’s artwork about it, you have an entryway into talking about how you feel about it yourself,” Winfield said.
She saw that happen again and again in class, and it motivated her to compile the students’ work into a digital book, “Pandemic Portraits: Visual Stories of Community Resilience.”
Here are some of the students’ pictures, along with excerpts from their reflections.
Reflections have been edited lightly for clarity.
Emily Hurtado, 10th Grade
I took the picture because I wanted to capture a feeling of wonder and curiosity. For me, there’s so many deep feelings in the pandemic. … The girl wearing the mask, physically she’s just tired of wearing it. But she is looking beyond the frame. I wanted to capture how people just wonder. They go into their own mindset and just think, ‘It’s going to get better.’ Like, this is going to be okay. Like, they just picture their ideal happy place, and that’s kind of what I wanted to do with this.
“The Effects of a Pandemic”
Fernando Abrego, 12th Grade
Most of the streets are now empty. Before, you would usually see kids coming home from school, people hanging out with their friends at the park or outside of their house, and some people doing their daily jog. Now, you rarely see people.
Kevin Guerrero, 11th Grade
I took this photo on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It’s my family’s altar that we set up for my family members that have passed away. When I took this photo it reminded me of all the memories I had with them and how thankful I am to have those memories.
Arleth Villegas, 9th Grade
The passing of my dad was really hard on my family, but with COVID happening this year it made me miss him a lot more with me spending so much time alone. I put this up in my room so I could feel closer to him during these hard times.
Maritza Rabadan, 12th Grade
I feel like everyday that goes by I’m being prevented from doing what I want to do.
“Making an Exit”
Oscar Sanchez, 12th Grade
Quarantine has been rather troublesome for my mental health, as in I now feel like I have become more isolated due to the pandemic and thus I don’t connect as well with the outside world and feel more weirder from all. It’s hard, and it’s not the brightest place to be…. All is not bad though. I managed to spend my summer with video games, reminding me of my younger years. Whether I play by myself, or with my friends online, I can still have a good time even with my mental health in shambles.
“Make It Count”
Karla Lopez, 12th Grade
As a first-time voter and daughter of immigrants, I wanted to go out and vote. I voted for the first time ever on November 3. It felt good voting because I just didn’t vote for myself but for the families that never made it to the other side, for the ones who left everything behind in pursuit of something better, and especially for the ones who aren’t able to vote.
Leslie Corona, 12th Grade
I know that people have been in a dark place and think that there is no hope for them, especially now because of quarantine. But then something unexpected happens — or it can even be something or someone in your life — and there is a spot of light/ hope. It’s just there for you, and it will be always. So that’s one reason to keep fighting until you get there to the light.
Ariana Alvarez, 11th Grade
So many people use art to take their mind out of the crisis, to distract themselves for a bit.
“The Virus in the Shadows”
Jocelyn Camacho, 11th Grade
It will be extremely hard for everyone to adjust to stop wearing masks someday.
“Falling into a Pandemic”
Ethan Feng, 11th Grade
“Hey! Where’s your mask, Kevin?”
“It’s all right. There’s nobody around. Let’s go get some boba!”
“I need some boba to take this off my mind.”
Andy Medrano, 11th Grade
This COVID-19 outbreak has made 2020 a very sad and gloomy year: staying inside, death counts rising, coronavirus cases rising, and the fear of getting it. This picture was taken a few months ago. [It] shows my aloe vera plant dying. The color of the picture reflects how I felt at that time.
“Planning for the Future”
Emily Gonzalez, 11th Grade
I think that the future is going to be nothing like anyone has pictured.
“When You Do Good Things, Good Things Happen”
Alexander Ocampo, 10th Grade
I took this picture last year before the pandemic when I was in a Police Explorers program. We decided to go to the Maxwell Street Community Garden and help the owners plant some vegetables. After we finished planting, I decided to take a picture to remind myself how important it is to work together as a team and how it’s a good thing to help out the community. During this pandemic, I’ve seen many neighbors helping each other out, like sharing clothes and food.
“A Different Halloween”
Diana Hernandez, 12th Grade
When I took this photo I was thinking about how so much has changed. … My little sister really wanted to go trick or treating like every other year. I interviewed her about this experience. She said, “My mom kept telling me all the time to cover my face with the mask because there were people passing by and that if I did not cover myself, I could get coronavirus. She told me that if I didn’t cover my face that we were going to go back home, but I wanted to go trick or treating and continue wearing my costume so I had to keep my mask on.”
“Mini Home Theater”
Angel Nuñez, 12th Grade
A dinosaur was bored during a pandemic from the fossil virus. One day, when he was at home, he discovered a way to entertain himself by watching a TV show on Netflix. He was happy and hopeful that this would be a way to pass the time.
Priscilla Cordero, 11th Grade
This was the view I saw when my cat was sick in the hospital. … I took a picture because it looked really pretty and because it made me have hope … so now in times of hard events, I can see this picture and I can still get hope that everything will be okay again.
“Not the Same”
Maria Chavez, 12th Grade
The usual classrooms filled with students constantly bonding with each other and making friends while actively participating in class have turned into silent remote lessons … where all you see are profile pictures attached to names that rarely make a sound.
Jorge Medina, 11th Grade
COVID-19 has made it harder for me to visit my girlfriend and being away from her for so long was very stressful for the both of us.
“Falling for Fall”
Miriam Fernandez, 12th Grade
My niece didn’t get to enjoy much of the outside world. We had to be extra careful because she touches everything and she doesn’t know what’s going on but loves to wear her mask.
“People Obstructing Our Freedom”
Osvaldo Herrera, 11th Grade
Nobody knows what everyone went through. My father had COVID-19 and that was really hard to get through. Dealing with school was very hard and just getting through life was very hard. Many people are selfish and don’t care about the safety of others. They don’t bother wearing masks or isolating themselves, and they are a big block to our freedom from this pandemic.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.