Through a camera lens, US students find images to sum up life in the pandemic

Burke talks with his student Tristan Laos-Green about his photography project at Boone High in Orlando. Burke had his students take photos about how Covid-19 has changed their community. — Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Florida: The assignment was to capture in photographs what already weighed heavily on most everyone’s mind: The way the coronavirus pandemic had altered their lives.

Students in John Burke’s creative photography class at Boone High School had no shortage of ideas. They took photos of empty refrigerators, discarded face masks, overdue bills, at-home haircuts.

Tristan Kaos Green, 17, thought about how it felt to return to Boone’s campus, south of downtown Orlando, when so many classmates chose to study online this semester.

“I was thinking about the feeling I had when I first came back to school after Covid had happened, and I realised that none of the faces I used to see were in school anymore,” said Tristan, a Boone senior. “And it was kinda scary, I’m not going to lie. And it was lonely.”

He decided to photograph himself in an empty school courtyard, a face mask across his mouth and nose, his school ID around his neck and his backpack slung over one shoulder. He wanted to convey the central message on campus: “You kinda have to distance yourself.”

The end result was striking, capturing Tristan sandwiched between the dark clouds of the sky and the stark concrete of the walkway.

Orange County Public Schools had issued an “artists call” for black and white photographs that showed the impact of the pandemic on students. Students from high schools across the county submitted photos.

Tristan’s was one of 20 selected to hang at OCPS headquarters in downtown Orlando. The gallery was titled “Through Their Eyes: 2020”.

Others in the gallery highlighted a basketball hoop with a net removed at a shuttered playground, a child at a window with his hand pressed against the pane, a child on a backyard swing set, alone. Another showed a boy, in a mask and backpack, outside a school’s front door. His mirror image, faded and ghost-like, faced him. In that second image, the boy had no mask, as if the child’s memory of life before the pandemic was with him on campus.

Burke said in class he frequently discusses how to generate interesting ideas. “Observe your community, observe yourself,” he tells his students.

But his students are a creative bunch and found many ways to document life disrupted by Covid-19 concerns.

They can express in images what might be difficult to express in words, he said. “I am, in a good way, continually surprised by how deep they are, how pensive and reflective they are. I certainly was not at that age.”

One student photographed a maximum occupancy sign with the number taped over. A senior photographed all the college mail she’d received, piling it up on her bed and sharing her sense of being overwhelmed with a world that expected her to move on even as so much had changed.

Though more than half of his students were studying remotely last semester, visible in class only on a screen, an online message system allowed all of them to share their photos and their thoughts.

“This helps connect them,” Burke said. “I think it also helps them cope. I’m anxious, but I see you’re anxious.”

When Tristan shared his photo, one student wrote, “I love how empty the school is and the atmosphere is so cool.”

Tristan had a friend help with his campus photo shoot. He said Burke, after seeing his first take, prompted him to consider ways to improve it, encouraging him to think about his position in the courtyard, the camera angle and the tone that best gave it the “cold feel” he wanted.

Caitlyn Jaryszak, 17, who took the college mail photo, also photographed her two-year-old sister, wearing a face mask and holding aloft an expandable ball that when stretched out gave the sense the little girl was in a cage.

The Boone senior wanted to convey how much her youngest sister’s life was constrained by the virus. “It’s impacted her whole life so far,” she said. “I feel like she hasn’t been able to explore.”

The photo also was selected for the district headquarters’ gallery.

Caitlyn said most of the time two-year-old Phoebe is happy at home and, at her age, oblivious to the virus. In fact, her young model was often smiling, laughing and not all that willing to stand still. But Caitlyn managed to capture a momentarily serious look on the toddler’s face, and that seemed to capture 2020.

“I think it was a really interesting assignment,” said Caitlyn, who is studying remotely this semester. “And it was really cool to see everybody’s else work and how they thought about it and how they felt the pandemic impacted them and the community.” – Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service

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