The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With face masks and a kiss, photographer shines a light on love and acceptance during coronavirus chaos

Gillian Canavan and Mark Shortliffe (Arina Voronova)

The images pop out at office workers and tourists all over Manhattan as they hurry past empty buildings and construction sites. Their eyes are drawn to posters showing couples of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations kissing through medical face masks.

Brooklyn photographer Arina Voronova initially wondered whether her blown-up snapshots would capture the public’s attention when friends and neighbors began randomly posting them around the city in early March. But then supportive emails started arriving at her website,

Just as in the aftermath of 9/11, “people are realizing that we need to support each other to get through the coronavirus,” said Voronova, 33, a former marketing specialist who moved to New York from St. Petersburg, Russia, five years ago to pursue a more creative lifestyle.

“As the level of social anxiety rises, we start missing simple but important things: love, kindness and tolerance,” she said. “My project is a reminder to all of us of what being a human is. It’s about us being able to deal with the current world’s most significant problem with love and sympathy.”

The idea for a campaign of kindness featuring face masks came to Voronova in December after she read the first accounts of the coronavirus and covid-19 spreading in China.

“With the disturbing news, I saw the possible problems that might develop with negative behavior toward Asian people,” she said. “Here in New York, people were suddenly avoiding Chinatown. Lots of Asian people were being mistreated in public transportation and at work, especially when wearing masks.”

The dismal and frightening news related to the spread of the virus is having a heavy impact on the minds and behavior of almost everyone, Voronova said.

Hoping to shine a light of positivity during a dark time, she came up with “The Act of Love” and started asking couples (and a mother and son) to pose for her while wearing medical masks as they kissed and embraced.

“It took me a while to find the masks — I had to go all the way to a pharmacy in Flushing because everyone was sold out,” she said. “People were so scared about what might happen that they began panicking in January and buying them all.”

Voronova printed 200 posters of 10 couples and gave them to friends, who decided to put them up around the city.

“I started this as a small-scale, personal project, but it seems like it’s now taking off,” she said. “People are taking pictures of the posters around the city and posting them on social media.”

Over the next week, Voronova plans to photograph a half-dozen additional couples wearing masks and will print another 200 posters to give away, along with hundreds of small stickers, she said.

Because she is naturally shy, she said she had to summon the courage to walk up to strangers and ask them to put on face masks while standing in the street, kissing.

Lilian Gessner and Alexis Brilliant, a couple visiting New York from Toronto, were among those who said “yes.”

“We were sitting in Washington Square Park, eating bagels, when we were asked if we'd like to pose for the project,” said Gessner, 28. “When (Arina) explained her message, I was all for it. Dealing with the coronavirus comes down to being a good citizen and thinking of everyone, not just yourself.”

“The posters help people realize that it's not just the Chinese who are spreading this virus,” added Brilliant, 26. “All kinds of people are in these photos, showing that anyone can get infected. It's a good message to get out there right now.”

As the virus continues to spread, said Voronova, people might not feel comfortable seeing two people kissing in masks — especially if they are doing their errands around town in masks of their own.

“I don’t know where this is going to go,” she said, “but for now, I just want to bring an awareness. We’re all in this together. I think that’s the message people need to hear right now.”

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