‘We can’t go back to normal’

Twelve young photographers share their stories about how the events of 2020 have shaped them


The coronavirus pandemic had already disrupted everyday life when George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, sparking weeks of protest — and a broader racial reckoning in America. Locked down but riled up, many young people are trying to find their footing in this confusing new world, struggling to maintain basic social ties while pursuing dreams of social justice.

How does it feel to be launching a career, or entering college, or still muddling through high school in this time of national turmoil? To find out, The Washington Post contacted dozens of photographers across the country who are 25 or younger and whose photography has been influenced by the dramatic events of the past six months. The work of a dozen young people is presented here, along with brief essays they wrote for The Post about their experience.

Their words and images pulsate with a quiet fury: A 17-year-old in New York City is angry about living in what feels like a police state. A black University of Texas graduate documents being “an extreme minority” on campus. An 18-year-old from New York takes photos to process her fear when her mother develops a high fever, a possible symptom of covid-19.

Many say they are outraged by police brutality, racism and the failure of the world’s wealthiest nation to care for the sick and the poor. But they also believe that America is moving toward a “new normal,” in the words of a 23-year-old photographer from Oakland, Calif. And they say their hope for a better world drives them to create art that hastens the change they want to see.

Ana Carmona, 18

New York
Image: (Photos by Ana Carmona)

Never-ending were days my mother’s fever exceeded the thermometer, sweat dripping down her neck as she said her bones could no longer bear the pain.

We didn’t know if things were going to get worse. She recalls seeing her mother in her sleep, or was she hallucinating? Can’t quite remember. Holding the hand of hope itself, a little bit of hope to set her at ease at least for the time being. The sickness attacked her consciousness; lemons and ginger, home remedies that would settle the battle, give my mother the strength to resuscitate.

Everyone’s trying to understand, and there’s no denying: We’re all going through it. But don’t disregard that many are going through far worse. How is it that this country was prepared to tear-gas protesters but ran out of supplies when it came to treating the sick?

Ana Carmona was a student at the Bronx Documentary Center when she photographed her time in quarantine with her mother, who became very ill with symptoms similar to those of covid-19. Her mother was not tested but has since recovered. Ana will attend Cornell University in the fall.

Kian Kelley-Chung, 23

Columbia, Md.
Image: (Photos by Kian Kelley-Chung)

How many kids will lose their parents to bullets and handcuffs before their tassels turn? How many parents will bury their children before the flowers lain on their graves bloom? How many times must we die before we can live?

As the past shaped our present, our future is a slice of marble ripe for sculpting — or molding. Will we plant yesterday’s pain in tomorrow’s soil? And how far away is tomorrow? Shall I measure the distance: In miles Ahmaud ran? In minutes George couldn’t breathe? In dollars spent on Skittles and iced tea?

Skies wane over hours every day, seconds counting down to solace. The sun rises and tomorrow begins. But not the morrow written on the slab. New beginnings owed to us from pasts long ago. A day where our darkness is seen as light.

Roads open for us to close. Oceans of people flooded. One body to fill the street.

Kian Kelley-Chung, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, has always had a deep passion for storytelling, especially through visual and interactive forms such as photography, video games, film and virtual reality.

Amber N. Ford, 25

Image: (Photos by Amber N. Ford)

After 25 years in Cleveland, where I was born and raised, I decided to take a leap of faith. In late February, I moved 1,058 miles to New Orleans, expecting to start the next chapter of my artistic career and immerse myself in a vibrant new community. But just two and a half weeks after I arrived, the United States declared a national emergency amid the global coronavirus pandemic. Talk about right place, wrong time.

I knew maybe five people. I began walking around my neighborhood, looking for moments that felt specific to this time.

Then I hit on the idea of taking social distancing portraits — outside, with at least six feet between me and my subject. It began with my roommate. Then two friends from Cleveland who had also relocated to New Orleans. Then a few people I met when I arrived. Love and a sense of belonging — whether through friendship, family or intimacy — is needed just as much as food and water. Ultimately, unable to find a full-time job amid the pandemic, I moved back to Cleveland. But documenting my friendships, old and new, in a strange city in the midst of covid-19 was important not only for my record of 2020, but for my own sanity.

Amber N. Ford is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. She is best known for her work in portraiture, which she refers to as a “collaborative engagement between photographer and sitter.”

Kendall “Kengotrich” Bessent, 20

Image: (Photos by Kendall “Kengotrich” Bessent)

The past few months have been a test mentally and physically. During a time when everything seems surreal and out of order, I found myself needing to disconnect. I turned to what I do best: capturing the essence of my people. It’s a beautiful thing to create work centered on my friends and family. They’re themselves around me, and that authentic energy is communicated through my portraits of them.

Kendall “Kengotrich” Bessent is a student at Georgia State University. Influenced by the Black diaspora, he focuses on capturing all aspects of Blackness in his photography.

Steven Tovar-Campos, 17

New York
Image: (Photos by Steven Tovar-Campos)

In my neighborhood in the Bronx, we are constantly being watched. Whether it’s NYPD helicopters, security cameras or ICE agents, these oppressive forces bring paranoia to the majority Black and Latinx communities.

One night, while I was walking around the neighborhood with my mother, a police helicopter shone a spotlight on us. My mother was completely unfazed by the light, which made me reflect on this surveillance state.

As a community, we normalize being under constant watch, whether in our homes or on our neighborhood streets.

Instead of keeping my community safe, it feels like a device to criminalize us. From extra police at our train stations to flood lights beaming through our windows, I can no longer accept this as normal. As a Latinx person living under an administration that targets my identity, I am outraged. I feel a cloud of fear following me wherever I go.

Steven Tovar-Campos creates work influenced by his identity and upbringing. His photographs focus on the injustices affecting his community. Steven is a recent graduate of the International Center of Photography’s Teen Academy Imagemakers program and of the High School of Fashion Industries.

Eric Hart Jr., 20

Macon, Ga.
Image: (Photos by Eric Hart Jr.)

This moment is so incredibly baffling. As a young black individual, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed. I’ve had moments of confusion, as well as moments of sorrow. However, the phenomenal thing about being an artist is practicing a craft that somehow, mysteriously, both teaches and comforts you, while slowly filling you with the hope you may have lost.

When covid struck, I was forced to leave NYU and come back to my hometown of Macon, Ga. I became infatuated with my grandparents, and they became my new subjects. Then Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed, and I felt a sense of outrage. I wanted to get out on the streets and join the groups of people raising their voices and fighting for change. I wanted the art I create to celebrate blackness and spark some light at the end of the tunnel. While these times are incredibly difficult to understand, I’m more than thankful that I have art to guide me through.

Eric Hart Jr. is a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the creator of the creative visual brand Love Hart.

Adraint Khadafhi Bereal, 22

Waco, Tex.
Image: (Photos by Adraint Khadafhi Bereal)

In my upcoming book, “The Black Yearbook,” I document small moments of radiance in the lives of Black students at the University of Texas at Austin. On a campus of 52,000 students, Black students make up less than 5 percent of the student body — an extreme minority. This project aims to dismantle the idea that Blackness is a monolith and share what it means to be Black at a predominantly white institution. By inserting myself into the domestic spaces of these men and women as they navigate coming of age, reality and the pressures of fitting into white spaces, I’m able to situate Black joy within a greater conversation about being.

Adraint Khadafhi Bereal is a multidisciplinary creative who focuses on photography, bookmaking and graphic design. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.

Haley Santibanez, 16

Los Angeles
Image: (Photos by Haley Santibanez/Las Fotos Project)

When I joined Las Fotos Project, I was excited to learn more about photography. But I was insecure when it came to showing people my art and talking about my feelings. They helped me see the importance of capturing unique moments in life, creating meaningful images so others can experience what I felt when I took the picture. They have helped me find confidence that I didn’t know I had.

Taking pictures has been very therapeutic; it has helped me feel more calm. Amid a global pandemic, I focused on my daily experiences in quarantine and how I see our new world. In this historic moment, I wanted to show people what I’ve been coping with so they think about their own experiences, and maybe even relate to mine.

I have also been taking pictures of the Black Lives Matter movement. My father was a victim of police brutality. He was shot three times in the back and then had an unfair trial. Even though we aren’t close, this was horrible and he deserved justice like everyone else. I believe if l can bring awareness through my photographs, I can help make a change in this world.

Haley Santibanez is a high school student who created her work with the support of Las Fotos Project, a community-based nonprofit organization that inspires teenage girls through photography, mentorship and self-expression.

Salihah Saadiq, 23

Oakland, Calif.
Image: (Photos by Salihah Saadiq)

I saw a sign at a protest that read: “We can’t go back to normal.” It is time for a new normal.

As a queer black woman, the old normal was trash, cloaked in layers of trauma and dismissal. I hope there is healing in the new normal. The new normal will be one that is whole; that doesn’t question the importance of all black lives. One that is healthy, that overflows with love and compassion for all things living. It will be honest, transparent and will listen. One that allows black and brown children to live courageously and holds wrongdoers accountable.

Most importantly, we must be prepared to work for new normal. Because that sign is right: We can’t go back.

Salihah Saadiq graduated from the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco in 2018. She has been photographing for over seven years.

Michael Blackshire, 26

Image: (Photos by Michael Blackshire)

My perception of racism in America has never been the same since the day in high school when I learned about Trayvon Martin. Someone made a joke about buying Skittles from the vending machine with a hoodie on. I giggled because I hadn’t heard the Trayvon Martin story. A friend became upset at my laughter and told me about the case.

After that, there seemed to be a story every year about the killing of an unarmed African American: Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Walter Scott. Each death would be a big topic in the news for a week, then people would move on to the next story. This seemed to be the case, too, with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. People in the moment seemed to move on. When I first saw the footage of George Floyd’s arrest, I had the feeling the same thing would happen. Life would go on. Life always went on.

But this time seems different. I remember reading articles about the coronavirus back in January and wondering if this disease would affect America in any way. What has happened this year has been unprecedented, and each new headline has gripped us more than the last. One can only hope that means brighter days are ahead.

Michael Blackshire, who turned 26 this month, is a recent graduate of Western Kentucky University.

Vanessa Leroy, 23

Waltham, Mass.
Image: (Photos by Vanessa Leroy)

What does a world in which I’m happier look like?

As a black woman, it’s hard to remain in good spirits when you constantly see the lives of people that look like you being taken by the police and discarded by the justice system. The echoes of past civil rights protests reverberate in this current moment, bringing an influx of visualized tragedies. While it’s important to bring injustice out of the shadows, I struggle to deal with the constant exposure to black death on social media.

It’s challenging to steer away from pessimism when property is valued over the humanity of black people, and when police have the power to murder with impunity. When white people conveniently forget that the United States is built upon genocide, theft, slavery and racism. When you have to explain and explain and explain.

Anti-blackness is so pervasive and deadly. Disenfranchisement is costing us our lives and our futures. However, I won’t stop imagining that this world can transform beyond its rotten origins, because imagination is the first thing we need to continue this fight. Black lives matter!

Vanessa Leroy is completing her bachelor of fine arts in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Malike Sidibe, 23

New York
Image: (Photos by Malike Sidibe)

I was heartbroken after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I couldn’t just sit and watch. I wanted to be part of change and fight for all the black people who have lost their lives to police brutality.

I decided to join the protests and brought along my camera. The first few nights were incredibly intense; I was pepper-sprayed, hit with a baton and yelled at many, many times. There was a lot of violence, but I never felt afraid. I kept going and kept photographing. It was inspiring to see people coming together and uniting for this cause and looking out for one another.

I know that change will not come overnight. But I am hopeful that the time has come for equality for everyone and an end to abusive policing in this country.

Malike Sidibe moved from Guinea to New York City in 2013 where he joined a nonprofit after-school program called NYC Salt.

About this story

Production and photo editing by Haley Hamblin and Nick Kirkpatrick. Design and development Brandon Ferrill. Editing by Lori Montgomery. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Brian Cleveland and Courtney Rukan. Additional development by Jake Crump and Lucio Villa.