Photography helps bridge the social distancing divide
Rodger Kingston and his wife Carolyn are sheltering in place. “We’re doing well here,” he told me. “We’ve got systems arranged for such things as grocery shopping, going to the pharmacy, post office, bank, etc.” The Kingstons, both in their late 70s, take social distancing very seriously whether running errands or taking walks around their neighborhood in Belmont, Massachusetts. “We feel as if we had targets on our backs and are being very careful,” he said.
Rodger has been a photographer for over four decades. Throughout those years, he’s worked on numerous documentary projects. Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic—and his need to be extremely vigilant due to his age and health status—he is not able to document what’s happening on the front lines of this war the way he once might have. But those now-systematic errand runs and socially-distanced neighborhood walks allow him to focus his lens in a more personal way.
“In many ways this is a strange project,” he says, “What there is for me to document is the quiet, almost silent restructuring of our world.”
His photographs of online church services, for instance, are something most people never contemplated before. The woman buying flowers at Wilson Farms in Lexington, Massachusetts, might be any spring shopper, except she dons a face mask, something uncommon in the western world before the pandemic.
Without context, other images are easy to misinterpret. Rodger’s photograph of supermarket shelves stripped bare might be mistaken for shoppers preparing for a threatening storm, something that unfolds over a short period, not the ongoing situation we find ourselves in now. Another image of a young woman holding a cigarette in one hand while giving a thumbs-up with the other could be from almost any time. But knowing the photographer couldn’t come closer to his subject makes it clear his framing is dictated, at least in part, by otherwise invisible circumstances.
“It’s as if we’ve gone into a long tunnel, and have no idea what the world will be like when we come out the other end,” says Rodger. “All we can predict is that it will be changed in ways some of which we can’t imagine.”
Rodger titled the series A Journal of the Plague Year (after Daniel Dafoe’s novel about the bubonic plague of 1665) or, more casually, The Pandemic Series. The ongoing project is vital because of the sense of uncertainty surrounding its creation. As the creator, making the photos gives Rodger a sense of purpose, an effort towards the greater good of documenting what life is like in his corner of the world.
And though what we’re going through now is unprecedented, the world has seen and survived pandemics before. Humanity pulled through those crises without the high tech tools we have today, including the devices most of us carry around in our pockets, which we might go stir-crazy without. Our ancestors didn’t have such luxuries. In this way, Kingston’s images give hope to the rest of us. Even though we’re physically separate, we can use technology—from photography to video conferencing and beyond—to stay connected. That may take the form of an online church service for some. For others, it might be talking to their best friend or other loved ones. And there may even be times where you need a break—video-call fatigue is real, after all—and just want to sit alone. That’s ok, too.
“What I see from my front window and in walks and drives around my neighborhood are people isolated from one another like figures in a Hopper painting,” said Rodger, describing the couples, families, dog walkers, and kids he observes from afar.
Other than his wife, Rodger tells me all his closest relationships are now by phone, which he hasn’t figured out how to photograph yet.
Rodger Kingston is a photographer who has, over four decades of image-making, worked on numerous documentary projects. Train to Providence, his collaboration with poet William Doreski, was published by bd-studios.com.