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A Somerville Photographer Captures Emotional Impact Of COVID-19 In Portrait Series

Cole Bascome-Duong and Maude Bascome-Duong are 20-year-old students. Both say they wear masks to protect their friends and family. (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Cole Bascome-Duong and Maude Bascome-Duong are 20-year-old students. Both say they wear masks to protect their friends and family. (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)

Wearing masks has, in some ways, hindered our interactions with people. Seeing someone’s face can help gauge how to approach them, what to say or whether to interact with them at all.

On the Masks of Boston website, photojournalist and photographer Katherine Taylor has been documenting individuals in a project called "Who Do You Wear a Mask For?" Accompanying each portrait is the answer to this question. It might seem obvious — to protect our loved ones and ourselves from contracting COVID-19. But Taylor learned there was more than one answer to this question.

Katherine Taylor photographing in her backyard studio for the project "Who Do You Wear a Mask For?" (Courtesy Maria Freda)
Katherine Taylor photographing in her backyard studio for the project "Who Do You Wear a Mask For?" (Courtesy Maria Freda)

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, Taylor says she had a lot of fear surrounding COVID-19 — the fear of how to stay safe and keep other people safe. Whatever project she was going to create had to show respect to the participants by protecting them.

“My well-being is your well-being. Your well-being is my well-being,” she says of her strong belief in wearing masks.

Talking to friends, she realized that people were experiencing the uncertainty of this health pandemic differently. The emotional toll it was taking on folks in her community was apparent in the conversations she had with people.

Mateo Gaviria-Serrano, a 5-year-old student, says the most challenging part of COVID-19 has been “not going to restaurants.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Mateo Gaviria-Serrano, a 5-year-old student, says the most challenging part of COVID-19 has been “not going to restaurants.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)

The idea for the portrait project was born out of her desire to ask people questions that allowed space to really speak about whatever it is they wanted to share. Taylor starts each photo session by asking the participants what the most challenging part of COVID-19 has been for them.

Then she asks them about what has given them strength during this time and whether there have been any unexpected positive outcomes. The last question she poses is who do they wear a mask for?

The project, which she started in mid-April, is split into two halves: one part is the portrait and the other is the responses to the questions. Through this work, Taylor hopes that people will connect with each other on a deeper level.

Rex Connell, a 67-year-old antique restoration buyer and seller, says an unexpected positive outcome of the pandemic is that he’s “getting more work done.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Rex Connell, a 67-year-old antique restoration buyer and seller, says an unexpected positive outcome of the pandemic is that he’s “getting more work done.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Linda Piper, a 38-year-old hairdresser, says the isolation has been the most challenging part of the pandemic. “I’m used to literally touching upwards of 10 people a day. I’m accustomed to days filled with conversations and hugs.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Linda Piper, a 38-year-old hairdresser, says the isolation has been the most challenging part of the pandemic. “I’m used to literally touching upwards of 10 people a day. I’m accustomed to days filled with conversations and hugs.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)

“There's increased empathy. There's increased awareness,” she says. “People have a chance to read what somebody else has very vulnerably shared with me, which is beautiful.”

Taylor started the project in her backyard, thinking it would be a responsible space to photograph people because of the control she had over the environment and her ability to be able to make it safe for everyone who wanted to participate. Her two goals for the project are making people more aware of the positive impact wearing masks has on their community and giving people the agency to say how they feel during this time.

“I recently read a quote by RuPaul and the quote was, 'The greatest act of kindness we can give each other is acknowledgment,'" she says. "That's kind of been my guiding philosophy with this project. So I welcome every voice.”

For people who come across the portraits, Taylor hopes to help them establish a deeper empathy for what somebody else may be going through. For example, if you saw one of her subjects walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t assume anything was wrong with him. But in speaking with him, he told Taylor he has heart issues, had been on a ventilator and has been experiencing long-term isolation throughout the pandemic.

“Those are the things that you just wouldn't know looking at somebody on the street,” she says.

Lake Isabel Scheib Montross, an almost 4-month-old cognitive leaper, with Sarah Montross, a 39-year-old art museum curator. An unexpected positive from the pandemic has been the amount of time they’re able to spend together. (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Lake Isabel Scheib Montross, an almost 4-month-old cognitive leaper, with Sarah Montross, a 39-year-old art museum curator. An unexpected positive from the pandemic has been the amount of time they’re able to spend together. (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)

By the beginning of June, she had interviewed 90 people so far. The project has since expanded past her Somerville backyard. She takes portraits in Lawrence on Sundays and has partnered with Lynn Museum/Lynn Arts to capture photos of Lynn residents on Fridays.

Her goal is to work with more community organizations that can help facilitate gathering more voices for the project. Participants have included a museum curator to a 3-year-old to a city mayor, with room to add more to the project.

To check out the gallery online, visit Masks of Boston or head to Taylor's  Instagram page.

Daniel Acheampong, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, says “I wear a mask with and for all who stand up against the discrimination.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)
Daniel Acheampong, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, says “I wear a mask with and for all who stand up against the discrimination.” (Courtesy Katherine Taylor)

Related:

Christian Burno Arts Fellow
Christian Burno is the arts reporting fellow for The ARTery, WBUR’s arts and culture team.

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