Lived Through This

The New Normal

Photographing a year in quarantine

My daughter drawing rainbows in the window in March 2021 to cheer up neighbors during the lockdown. Photos: Rebecca Tien

On February 11, 2021, for the first time in 335 days, my fifth grader walked back in for his last “first day” of elementary school. The night before his return I found myself looking back over the year in photos in my Instagram feed, peppered with tags such as #TheNewNormal, #TheCovidLife. After almost a year, I’m not clear if anything feels “normal” to me.

I’m a photographer and a writer in Columbus, Ohio, and a documentarian for my city, my home — sometimes with words, always with photographs. On Friday, March 13, 2020, the day the world seemed to come to a screeching halt, 13 people in Ohio tested positive for Covid-19. I was sent on a flurry of assignments to capture stories while I still could.

Half those stories never saw the light of day: the opening-day preparations at the ballpark that never opened, the sustainability initiatives of a local restaurant that has barely sustained itself, the toilet paper run at the grocery store and the book run at the library before they shut their doors to the public, and the final dress rehearsal for a high school musical whose cast members never had their opportunity to shine. By the following Monday, the number of positive cases had increased to 50.

March 8, 2020, three days before a state lockdown was announced, when kids could still huddle together in a puppy pile.
L: Last rehearsal of ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, three hours before lockdown began. | R: Joe Santry, Huntington Park historian, looking in at the empty ballpark, which has not been open since the close of the 2019 season.

I remember telling my children when I picked them up that Friday in March, “In three weeks, when this is over, we’ll invite all our friends over for a big ice cream sundae party,” even though I knew things would probably stretch far longer than that. But we stayed optimistic. We planted a victory garden, drew rainbows on our windows to cheer passersby on the street, serenaded the elderly neighbor in a now infamous front-stoop concert, and like the butt-end of the worst pandemic joke, we learned how to bake sourdough. Three weeks turned into three more, which turned into 335 days.

The cello concert heard ‘around the world.’

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, when I left the house only to replenish groceries, the streets felt strangely quiet, apocalyptic. People hurried past each other, barely looking up, and grocery shopping felt like entering a war zone. The stay-at-home order was extended from early April to early May and then was stretched to the end of the month.

The Zoom tea party we had for my daughter’s seventh birthday back in April of last year.

On May 25, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and people began defying lockdown all over the country, pouring out of their homes and onto the streets. Protests continued on for weeks, and I was there to document them as well — from the small gathering on a Clintonville corner to the marching of hundreds through the downtown streets into the historically Black Bronzeville neighborhood. I wanted to tell a story that mattered.

The Juneteenth protest organized by Black, Out, and Proud marching down Long Street in Columbus.

Many of the stories I’ve told this year have been the quiet stories of home and family. I was moved by my daughter’s gracious acceptance of her virtual birthday tea party in April and delighted by my son’s unbridled joy when we finally found an unpopulated spot in a metropark creek for swimming in June. I helped a couple greet their newborn and bore witness as a proud teenager read from the Torah from the confines of his own home, sharing this rite of passage over Zoom. I grieved the loss of a friend at a memorial service in a park because restrictions didn’t allow for a funeral.

Reading from the Torah on Zoom.

We built a chicken coop and jumped on the trampoline for hours and explored every last inch of our backyard when there was nowhere else to go. My children’s annual “back to school” photo was snapped barefoot on our front stoop before heading off to their computers. Their tears over the endless “No” to various outing requests and frustrated meltdowns over endless Zoom meetings and asynchronous school days have been equally fair game in my documentation of our “day in the life.” Our lives have looked different from anything we’ve known before. And yet, we’ve also found rhythm and acceptance after a year of so much change.

My son taking in his first swim of the summer in Alum Creek, Groveport, Ohio.

My lens is my memory keeper for myself, and others, and although I’ve had far less time to do it, I am deeply grateful for my work. Witnessing these stories and using the camera as a way to step back from the moment as an observer has given me the chance to process events and circumstances that might otherwise have been overwhelming. I am moved and inspired to tell the stories of my family, my neighborhood, and my city as we all find our new normal.

Staff welcoming kids back to school when Columbus City Schools opened their doors to elementary school children on February 1, 2021.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Clintonville Spotlight.

I am a freelance photographer and writer drawn to stories of small everyday moments and broader stories about community and social justice

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