The rattle of an aging radio agonizing over war and the address of his childhood home were fading structural realities. He grew up in isolation after contracting encephalitis with an erased memory, and he also grew up embraced by a loving family. He had nothing or he had everything-- depending on which way you want to tell it.
Now with the wind exhaling, drifting the smell of fish from the bay into the walls of my grandpa’s apartment, he sat alone once again in the vortex of the COVID-19 pandemic. From his pipe wispy gray strands of smoke swayed like living ghosts. Sunshine shimmered through hisdusty window shades onto strewn book stacks and his silver threaded hair. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life melted on the record player’s rusting needle as the soundtrack to this isolated existence.
When time slows to a tormenting crawl, he turns on CNN. The news leads him through the possibility of death and despair, a borderless sphere where loneliness reigns and hope is an ancient entity. With the click of the off button, he enters into a state of pure illusion which is really numbness, like the numbness that follows an injury, before pain starts to make its way through. Everything seemed less real under the waves of oblivion, and that's what he needed. Iknew he longed for fiction-- his home, by the bay, indestructible.
While searching through the remnants of his former life stored in bins throughout the apartment, I found a 1960s Diana Camera. I began to photograph with the Diana camera simply to occupy my time, but I came to appreciate its ability to dismantle facades and reveal the true emotions lurking beneath my grandpa’s veneer. I photographed the lines of solitude etched in his forehead, the deep ravines of shadows that shrouded his existence. He didn’t externally wallow in the debris of what once was and what will never be; instead, he was a stolid figure. He waslike the planets in celestial orbit, distant and lying beyond reach, but through the vintagetelescope he communicated tacitly. I learned Diana's lens was an analgesic drug that allowed himto share the pain of solitude and alleviate the silence.
The 1960s Diana camera translated what surged beneath the glass of pupils, unearthing the fullness of my community’s bumps, bruises and tender spots. In a world bent onextinguishing flaws, the photos were a crushed and rendered perfume of the soul, an aestheticrepresentation of our shared internal pandemonium. Throughout the summer at the height of fear I documented those on the cracks and crevices of Queens, New York. The man on the brink of a financial cliff, waiting for a stimulus check as the arbiter of his survival. The woman mourning the death of her husband. The child reckoning with the complicated rubric of their identity in an unaccepting household.
Photographer Richard Avedon once wrote that all photographs in his family album were a fiction: a lie about who the people were, but a truth about who they desired to be. That interested me over the pandemic, as my camera documented the psychological loss of the era. It occurred to me that these fragmentary images might be a way to peer into the larger questions of the moment, into a country mourning the loss of connection in the midst of a racial revolution.
As I created this body of work, I listened to Stevie Wonder’s voice in “Love’s In Need of Love.” This was the soundtrack to a fragile time in American History, his soulful melodies reverberating through the Civil Rights Movement and the footsteps of activists. The song’s pulse still resounded on the streets of Queens in a country mending its divisions.
My photographic series was not tied to the isolation of the pandemic; rather, it was a collection of art that resonated across media and time. Oftentimes the person we walk past on the street is another stranger full of untold stories and sorrows--a kaleidoscopic vision, a confusing mosaic of opaque colors. By photographing my community and looking through a lens of empathy and compassion, I waded in the tide of the unknown and sent ripples through the status quo. Challenging hollow interactions was a catharsis of sorts to fully look at those surrounding me and recognize the messiness inherent to the human experience.
Gabrielle Beck is a junior attending Tenafly High School. When she is not writing or photographing, she can be found repurposing vintage denim. She is a finalist for New York Times “Coming of Age in 2020: A Special Multimedia Contest for Teenagers,” and her writing has been recognized by the National Council of Teachers of English. Her writing and photography is published or forthcoming in Kalopsia Literary, Flare Journal, and The Daphne Review.