Sara Terry, USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks April 8, 2020
Los Angeles, California
The Beginning. March 15, 2020
“These Days,” a visual diary, begins here, in my kitchen on Sunday afternoon, March 15th as the world continues to close down – and as I find myself drawn to photographing and writing about hearts that are opening up, including my own.
My background is in journalism. I was trained in how to cover the news. And I know what the news images are out there – the empty shelves and lines of people with masks. I’ve made some of them, and posted them. And we need to see the news. It’s so important.
But in the twenty years that I’ve been working as a documentary photographer and filmmaker, my work has become more personal, more conceptual. It’s still about social issues, but it’s driven by my need to understand how we define our humanity, and what the role of community is in helping us define that humanity. A friend of mine wrote a few days ago that pandemics can bring out the worst in people, the greed and selfishness. But so far, I have encountered kindness – strangers who post on neighborhood chat threads, offering their help to anyone who needs it; people checking in with friends they haven’t been in touch with for months; neighbors texting to see if I’m okay, if I need anything at the grocery store. (Toilet paper, please).
And so I find that I need another way to tell the story of these days. It started here today in my kitchen, when I baked a chocolate cake. Chocolate buttermilk, with chocolate cream cheese frosting (my favorite) to be exact. I wrote an email to my neighbors, inviting them to come by for a piece of cake, to keep whatever social distance they needed – to sit in my garden and enjoy it, or to stand at my door while I bring them a piece to take home.
I don’t know if anyone will come. But I needed to do this today, to cook for community. And besides, today is my niece’s birthday. More than social distancing keeps us apart – she lives two thousand miles away. But this cake is for her. I’ll blow out the candles in her honor and share it with whoever stops by or asks me to deliver a piece to them. Happy birthday, Principessa.
Between the Rains. March 20, 2020
It’s been pouring in Los Angeles, off and on for days. To my mind, the rains started coming right around the time the coronavirus started becoming a topic of daily conversation here. Every time a new burst of showers starts tapping on my roof, I can’t help think about things being cleansed – and about the constant number one reminder to everyone, everywhere, to wash their hands.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
A photographer friend of mine in Jordan emailed me the other day from her home in Amman, where the government has told residents to stay inside. She spoke of things she’d read, about the pandemic being a result of humans’ massive interference with the earth and its ecosystems.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
“Sitting at home right now, looking through the window, streets are empty,” she wrote. “For the past few days it's raining and thunderstorms, I wonder if it’s Mother nature taking matters in its own hands, washing away everything, protecting us again. Once again I say it all fits in.. as we wait for the aftermath of all this, I can’t help but be hopeful that at the end, like after a fire, the land will live to produce again.”
There was a short, sharp outburst of rain yesterday and when I came out of my studio into the garden, the sun was shining brilliantly, everything green and bright and wet. I think my friend, Nadia Bsesio is right that the land (that we humans) will live to produce again. Happy first day of spring, Nadia, from Los Angeles to Amman.
I Did Not Make This Photo. March 21, 2020
Forrest, the teenage-almost-adult son of my friends Danny and Lydia made this photo. I was texting with him and his sister, Tatum. I knew they were on a long drive home to Iowa, heading back from a family vacation that had been marked by the onslaught of the coronavirus.
I asked Forrest and Tatum what the view from the back seat looked like. Within seconds, Forrest sent me this photo. In it, you can see Tatum, who has either just sent, or is about to send, her photo of her back-seat-view to me. I love it, partly of course because I love them, but also because it’s such a marker in time – a time of disruption in the history of humanity, a moment in time of a road trip that is already hours long, a moment of their childhood receding in the rear view mirror.
Their father, Danny, who is a photographer, made an entirely different set of photos of his view from the car window, a poetic and personal view of trees flashing by, his response to the corona-changing world around us. He was bothered at first when I told him what his kids had sent me; he thought they should be looking out, aware of the urgency of these days, instead of looking in. I said I thought Forrest’s photo was exactly what it should be, of a child feeling safe with his family in the familiarity of a road trip like so many other road trips they had made together over the years. Forrest is on the cusp of looking out, at a world that is changing by the minute, before he can even step into it. He’s heading to college (if it’s open) and will swim on one of the best teams in the country (if pools are safe) and will probably head to the Olympics one day (if they’re held).
I think of Forrest a lot right now. I want the world to be right-side-up for him. I want that car ride to last forever. But I don’t, not really. And it won’t. And there’s nothing any of us can do but love him.
The Dogs. March 24, 2020
I live on an urban mountain just north of downtown Los Angeles. It’s possible that it’s just a fairly big hill – I remember looking up what it takes for a hill to be considered a mountain back when I was in elementary school and I lived on a hill near the harbor – but since mountain is part of the name of this neighborhood, that’s what we call it.
It’s always been a place where people are out walking. But these days there are a lot more people out, crisscrossing trails, stopping to watch hawks catch air currents and fly overhead, nodding at people walking in the opposite direction – or crossing the street to avoid them. Because everyone is staying six feet away from each other. Or more.
Except the dogs. By some small miracle, some saving grace, pets aren’t known to transmit the virus. So while their humans stand back, I greet the dogs who are out walking. I scratch their ears. I laugh when they lick me. I rub my hands in their fur.
Touch. It’s what I miss the most.
Sara Terry is an award-winning documentary photographer and filmmaker known for her work covering post-conflict stories, and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow for her long-term project, “Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa.” Her first long-term post-conflict work, “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace,” led her to found The Aftermath Project in 2003 on the premise that “War is Only Half the Story.”
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