The past two years have been unlike anything in Chicago’s history, with the onset of a once-in-a-century pandemic that quieted a busy city, waves of protests that rippled through neighborhoods in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a terrifying rise in gun violence. WBEZ photojournalist Manuel Martinez sat down this week in conversation with station archivist Justine Tobiasz to discuss how the pandemic and a tumultuous two years have forced him to adapt as a photojournalist and brought fresh considerations to what images will document this moment in our lives.
Here is an edited and condensed version of what Martinez said.
On how photography changed during the COVID-19 pandemic
I think one of the unique things about being a photojournalist is that it gives you this absolute unfettered access to spaces that other people don’t get. For me, growing up, my parents are from South America, I grew up in the United States. I love culture and love people. I love getting into good trouble, as they say.
One thing that went away during a pandemic, from a photo standpoint, was studio portraiture. There was a lot less of that that we were seeing. I just literally for the sake of the subjects (safety) had to go back to shooting all environmental lighting and doing very little production on the front end and just putting them in good light.
These portraits show people who have just lost a loved one. We asked them to bring something that was from the family members that have lost their lives. This is a treatment that we call a diptych. These stories are really powerful, because these people are in a very difficult moment. And so we’re very sensitive to make sure that they feel comfortable sharing their experience and their stories with us.
As a photographer, it’s my responsibility to honor (subjects), and to honor the story that they’re telling. So I will go to stories like this, and I will sometimes sit with someone for two hours, without a camera. The camera stays in the car, and I literally just sit and we’ll talk. And I share things.
During this time period, this was in the middle of the pandemic, we had an election, we had all of those things happening with, you know, George Floyd and all the protests that were going on that summer, and it was a lot to digest. My wife was going through breast cancer. I felt like my world was this really difficult space and even the way I photographed had to change, down to my workflow.
On the response to “May I take your picture?” during the pandemic
This was early voting, in Edgewater (in November 2020). We decided to head out to one of the polls, and to ask people as they were heading in, or after they were done voting, to come over and give us a few minutes to take a quick picture. We weren’t at all interested in their political views or whether they voted Republican or Democrat. All that we were really interested in was what I call “time capsule journalism,” catching this very unique and selective moment in history
It’s like, you know, a droplet of sand in the water. When they can’t come to the studio, then the next best thing is literally just to take the studio to the people. It’s amazing what you can do on the side of the street.
That’s Jacqueline Carpenter, she’s 78 years old. She was so excited to do the interview. And I couldn’t understand why until she took off her mask. And she told me that she wears lipstick every single day despite having to wear masks, because she said you never know when you’re going to end up somewhere where you’re going to need to look good. And this was her day. That’s why she’s so happy.
On how the pandemic will be recorded and remembered
I was shooting things in a different way (during the pandemic). And cataloging things in a different way.
There was a period of time that people forget, but there were certain items that just you couldn’t find. Still to this day, it’s like that. Or the masks that you’d find littered all over the street.
There are these little cues and symbols that right now may feel so normal, but in 20 years, what are those symbols gonna look like? And how will we interpret our history and look back at our history? How will our children, like my six-year-old sitting in the audience, be able to comprehend the experience that we went through? Those images are important.
On bringing humanity to tough subjects
There’s a lot of coverage in the city about gun violence, and particularly gun violence stories based on statistics, but this particular story related to people who had experienced violence but survived – and then the trauma and rehabilitative process that they go through.
Les Jenkins was shot when he was younger in Chicago and now is advocating and helping young people to live a better life. And this is one of the gentlemen that he’s kind of mentoring. And I think there’s something absolutely so powerful about getting access, in a short period of time to tell the stories.
I had one day to photograph. And so this is kind of like a slice of life story, but with the weight of the subject matter it’s very challenging and difficult. And so once again, some of the experience was where we just sat down and talked quite a bit before we started shooting. And I asked permission – I’m also very conscientious about the amount that I intend to shoot on these assignments, and the moments that I choose to shoot.
Sometimes if things get too vulnerable, I actually pull back and I know that I’m sacrificing the possibility of getting something that might be powerful image-wise, but it’s disrespectful for the standpoint of the subject and what they’re sharing. So he took me out, and we spent a whole day together. And the final image in this series is him standing in the place where he got shot.
On seeing surprising moments of joy in a pandemic
I knew that, outside of the Black and brown communities here in Chicago that were disproportionately affected by COVID, the senior community was also hit very hard. And they were actually some of the first, and the highest numbers of deaths.
This is a living facility on the North Side. It’s a pretty nice space. But they lost everything (when COVID-19 forced lockdowns). I mean, they lost their community, they lost their ability to exercise, they lost their ability to, you know, be a part of groups. It was all taken away from them.
But on the latter side of that, they were the first people to get immunized. And so they were also the first ones to kind of experience the first tastes of freedom. I wanted to be there when they got to like regain all of their freedom. It was really fun.
There was this one story about this couple. And they were an older couple in their 80s. And the husband and the wife were separated, and the husband was in assisted living, because he had some medical issues. And the wife was in independent living on opposite sides of the building. And the wife was, like, terrified everyday calling her husband, like, Gosh, is he okay? How can you live without me? His life is gonna fall apart. But it turns out the husband was living his best life. He had those nurses like running around for him.
This photo is a son seeing his mother for the first time in two years. There’s so many small things that, when you take them away from people, you don’t even realize.
These ladies are awesome. They have a walking club. And obviously, when they cut all group activities, they could no longer do their walking club, but they were kind of like the rogue ladies. They found a back door exit. And they would literally sneak out of the senior living facility to go on these walls together. I think, in a way, we all did that, right?
At some point, as horrible as all this has been, it’s one of the things in our lives that touched every human being all over the world. I mean, as humanity, have we ever really experienced something that is so profound?
Manuel Martinez is WBEZ’s photojournalist. Follow him on Twitter @DenverManuel. Justine Tobiasz is WBEZ’s media archivist. Follow her @jutobzz. Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor. Follow @cassiechicago.