In late March a colleague of mine, Andrew, sent me an email telling me “I think it’d be really interesting if you wrote a piece about what it’s like chronicling an empty campus: logistically and emotionally. Your photos are outstanding and your updates on the zoom calls are consistently thought-provoking.” I was flattered and threw it out to the editor, who agreed I should do it. I wrote up the essay, and my colleague Andrew kindly gave it an edit. I sent it off to the editor who responded that he was confused on whether I wanted it to feel personal and intimate, about the life of a BU photographer over the past month, or whether I wanted it to be more about the photos and observations. He felt it would work better if I took one approach or the other.
I do not dispute these thoughts, but with this feedback my interest in the assignment disappeared. I’m sure I felt that I really just wanted them to say “It’s great as is!” and being told it needed more work just exhausted me, but what I felt more was a self-consciousness that this essay was far too self-important. It suddenly felt inappropriate to ask that it be included in our daily publication for all the BU world to read.
That said, it doesn’t change the fact that I documented how I felt then, at the start of an unprecedented time in history. So, I’m sharing it here, so it exists somewhere.
All of the photos on this page were shot for Boston University.
Shooting During a Pandemic
As a photographer for BU Today, the biggest danger I usually face at work is whether or not I’ll squeeze into a spot on the BU bus on my way to an assignment on a rainy day. Photographing Comm Ave during the midst of a pandemic brings risks of a far more unnerving sort.
Massachusetts, like so many other states and nations, is virtually locked down because of coronavirus. Residents have been warned to stay home, except to buy essentials, like medicine and food. We have to avoid frequently touched surfaces and other people—and now constantly wash our hands.
For those of us who still venture out to work every day, it’s nerve-wracking. Although dorms are mostly empty and classrooms locked, there are still a few of us here on campus: facilities, dining services, and medical personnel at the medical campus, to name a few. Most BU staff and faculty have been told to work from home, but as a photographer, my job cannot be done remotely. My job, by its nature, records history, and the coronavirus and its effect on the BU community should be documented. Good or bad, it is now and forever part of the University’s story.
I am eternally grateful for my job—and to have bosses who tell me, “Do not go onto campus if you do not feel comfortable doing so”—and I feel confident that I can record this time and do it safely. So I continue working. Carefully.
Walking the paths of Boston University, which not long ago were filled with hustle bustle, it’s clear to see it has morphed into a ghost town different than the kind we see during spring break. The vitality is gone.
In mid-March, President Robert Brown sent an email to the BU community discouraging students who were off campus for spring break from returning. Classes would move to a remote learning model. That same day, I went onto west campus with my camera in search of students moving out and met Chen-Yun “Jerry” Yang (CAS’23), a student bringing collapsed cardboard boxes into his dorm room in Sleeper Hall.
Although this was more than a week before Governor Charlie Baker issued a stay-at-home advisory, I was reticent about being close to another person. I had just finished attending a Zoom meeting with colleagues and it was clear it was time to start physically distancing from one another.
Using a wide-angle lens to try and capture the quiet chaos of his space, I pressed myself against the far wall as I photographed Yang packing up his things to go into storage. He was going home to Taiwan. He told me he knew how bad this could get, and since it’d already passed through his country, he felt it would be safer for him at home. Yang was confused by American kids who hadn’t yet grasped the severity of the situation, “People think they can go out more because they have more time on their hands. And that’s not the point of going online.”
It’s true. I’d spoken to another student a day earlier who was excited about her friend returning to campus from New York because, she said, “It’s safer here” and they could now go to any café downtown to take their remote classes.
I was relieved to see that student moving off campus a week later.
On my way out of Sleeper Hall, the emptiness of the nearly abandoned building was hard to overlook. It was not normal.
It was from this point that I began treating all my surroundings as though they were contaminated: I avoid elevators, open doors with my sleeves (and wipe the sleeves later—thank goodness for fake leather!), and sanitize my hands if I touch anything.
By March 16, I was working from home as much as possible: editing photos submitted by students and faculty, planning my own photo shoots. Now, I come into campus only once I have a solid plan of where I will go and when. I let my subjects know I will be social distancing—a scenario that brings new challenges. Where I would typically move around, being a “fly on the wall,” my movement is now limited; I am simply waiting for the decisive moment to happen on its own as I stand, often times, in one spot.
I use all the contacts I have accumulated in the nearly ten years I’ve worked at BU to find specific things to photograph, like the last in-person service at Marsh Chapel. I got in touch with BMC to photograph their triage tent—from a distance. The PR rep I work with later thanked me for keeping my distance from him and everyone else, noting that other photographers had not been doing so.
This angers me. Our job is an important one until we are doing it irresponsibly.
I also photograph moments as I come upon them, like a facilities crew readying Marciano Commons for the return of some students. Four days later, the tables were removed once it became clear that sitting in a dining hall together was not going to be an option.
I am now entering my third week visiting campus periodically and methodically. I have photographed a professor remote teaching; I have visited NEIDL, where the Davey Lab is working on a treatment for COVID-19; I have shot empty classrooms; the GSU with its bright rainbow flag (and now a hand sanitizing station); the dining halls barely being used; and an echoing FitRec. I photographed the Howard Thurman Center an hour before it closed and where you could hear a pin drop in Dean Elmore’s Coffee and Conversation room.
Despite all my preparation and the steps I take during a photo shoot, in the few hours before I leave to come to campus, my heartrate speeds up and I feel anxious for the duration, calming only once I am home again. It’s been stressful taking good photos and doing it while not getting near people. You may recognize this as the feeling you get when you head into a grocery store to get some essentials, feeling at any time that you could get too close to another person, putting yourself or someone else at risk despite your best efforts to be efficient in your movements. As a result of this focused/nervousness combo, I find I lack the stamina to shoot for longer than three hours at a time.
Above all, it’s eerie here. It’s grey somehow, even when the sun is out. It’s a sad place to be, now that thousands are gone. For many years, I have lamented the heavy foot traffic on Comm Ave, worried about a collision with a distracted student. What I wouldn’t give to be on alert because the campus is bustling again. I look forward to it!
2 Replies to “Working During a Pandemic”
Nice article, Cydney. Your editor is a dope.
This is a thoughtful article that really brings home what it is like to be working under these difficult conditions as a photojournalist. I loved the personal sharing of your feelings and hesitations about working in this situation… and the photos really reflect not only the mood of the subject but also the mood of the photographer.
It’s a rotten shame that this story will not be shared to Boston University students and alumni. I am absolutely sure they would be fascinated and awed by seeing your pictures and reading your words. I know that I was enthralled by it and I hail from The University of Michigan!
I agree with the previous writer….your editor IS a dope to not see how important this story is to the history of BU…a piece of their history that they would never be able to grasp were it not for this story!
Great work that really touched me.