The Year of Endurance

Hope and uncertainty amid a pandemic that wouldn’t end

Maria J. Hackett of Brooklyn and daughter NiNi. (Photo by Anastassia Whitty)
Maria J. Hackett of Brooklyn and daughter NiNi. (Photo by Anastassia Whitty)
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In 2021, the pandemic forced us all to think hard about who we do and don’t trust

As a nation, we are supposed to be built around trust. Look at the back of the bills in your wallet. “In God We Trust.”

Trust the system.

Trust yourself.

Trust but verify.

Trust your instincts.

Love may be the emotion we like to think ultimately propels us, but it’s trust that informs how we go about our daily lives. And yet. Our level of trust, our very foundation, has been crumbling for a long time now. Scandals, abuse and corruption in the major pillars of our society — religious institutions, education, business, military, government, health care, law enforcement, even the sports world — have made us a wary people.

When the pandemic came, first as murmurs that were easy to tune out, then as an unbounded crisis we couldn’t tune into enough, our relationship to trust was newly infected with something we didn’t fully understand. And before long, who and what we trusted — or didn’t — in the form of elected leaders, scientists and doctors became one more cause of death here and all over the world. In this way, distrust was a kind of pandemic itself: widely contagious and passed by the mouth.

As the first American casualties of covid-19 were announced, President Trump kept insisting it would disappear “with the heat” or “at the end of the month” or “without a vaccine.” Like a disgraced, fringe science teacher, he entertained this idea at one coronavirus news conference: “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?” With leadership like this, the country was receiving an injection — of chaos.

The pandemic ripped through the rest of 2020, and America was not only more splintered than ever, but also a dangerous place to be. Some politicians declared to the public, “I trust the science,” as if that were an unprecedented and heroic stance.

As we navigated our way into 2021, questions about what to believe led — painfully and predictably — to doubts about the most reliable way we had to stay safe: wearing masks. With the return to schools looming, the debate about masks and children — masks as protectors, or masks as educational folly — played out like a plague of rants. No one seemed to trust others to do the right thing anymore, whatever that was. By summer’s end, trust felt like the latest variant to avoid.

Trust takes lots of forms, but can we actually see it in a photograph the way we can identify a cloud or a wave, or an overt moment of joy or sadness? The photo essays that follow capture a full tableau of human responses in year two of the pandemic — trepidation, but also a sense of renewal; celebration, but caution as well. And despite rancor and confusion still being in as steady supply as the vaccine itself, the permutations of trust have their own presence here, too, if we’re open enough to seeing them.

When Jay Wescott went on tour with rock band Candlebox, he was documenting one of the many performing acts that returned to the road this summer, after the long hiatus. On tour there’s a lot variables you can control, and just as many, if not more, that you can’t — and in the time of covid, control and trust form their own essential but perilous interplay. The picture of the band’s drummer, Robin Diaz, who is vaccinated but unmasked, setting up his kit in such proximity to road manager Carlos Novais, vaccinated and masked, not only captures that still-odd dynamic that goes into making any live performance happen right now; it is also a welcome contrast to all the images of masked and unmasked protesters screaming at each other about what and whom to trust. On tour with Candlebox, Westcott observed how trust is carrying the band forward, creating harmonies on and off the stage.

Much farther away, in Michael Robinson Chavez’s pictures from Sicily, we bear witness to religious celebrations as part of saint’s days, which were canceled last year because of the pandemic. The celebrations resumed, though stripped down, this September, with vaccines readily available, but then, as Chavez notes, the people of Sicily were vaccinated at lower numbers than those in other regions of the country. In one image, we see a tuba player, his mask down below his chin as he blows his notes out into the world. Behind him are masked adults and maskless children. And, perhaps all through the festival, a trust in God to watch over them.

Lucía Vázquez trained her lens on the eager crowds of young women who descended upon Miami, a city known for its own style of carnival-type celebrations, though decidedly less holy ones. These women have left masks out of their outfits and are trusting something not quite scientific and not quite political, but more personal: their guts. Such a calculation comes down to a conviction that either you won’t get the coronavirus, or, if you do, you’ll survive. It means placing a lot of trust in yourself.

As a visual meditation, the pictures in this issue offer a portrait of a historical moment in which trust and distrust have defined us. Ultimately, the photographs that follow, reflecting various realities of the pandemic, are tinted with hope that we can reclaim our lives. Not exactly as they were in the past, but in a way that still resembles how we had once imagined them for the future. These images remind us that even in our fractured, confused and suffering world, it remains possible that where we can find trust again, we can be healed.

Ready to Rock

Unmasked fans and mayflies: On tour with the band Candlebox

In February 2020, after a dear friend passed away (not from covid), all I could think about was getting on the road with a band so I could lose myself in the work and create something that would bring joy to people. The world had other plans, though.

Sixteen months later, I headed out on tour with Candlebox. Almost 30 years has passed since the Seattle hard-rock group released its debut album and saw it sell more than 4 million copies. Frontman Kevin Martin and his current lineup invited me along to document the first part of their tour. I packed up my gear, drove west, and met the band at Soundcheck, a rehearsal and gear storage facility in Nashville, as they prepared for the tour.

Whenever people learn that I photograph musicians, inevitably they ask me what it’s like on a tour bus. I tell people it’s like camping with your co-workers from the office where you all sleep in the same tent. For weeks on end. That sours their midlife fantasies about digging out that guitar from the garage and hitting the road to become a rock star.

The people who do tour and play music, build the sets, mix the sound, sell the merch and lug the gear night after night are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. They are a special breed of artists, deep thinkers, poets, masters of their instruments. Music has the ability to make you move and stop you in your tracks, to change your mood, make you smile, cry, think. The goal is the same: Put on a great show. Every night. Play like it could be your last show.

It’s easy to sit back and armchair quarterback on social media about the risks of holding festivals and rock concerts amid the pandemic, but this is what people do for a living. Few people buy albums or CDs or even download music anymore. It’s all about streaming and grabbing viewers on social media now. Touring and merch sales are about the only way musicians have to make money these days. Music is meant to be performed in front of people, a shared experience. With everybody on the bus vaccinated and ready to go, we headed to Louisville for the first of a 49-show run.

The crowd of mostly older millennials and GenXers were ready for a rock show. They knew all the words to the hits in the set — especially Candlebox’s mega-hit from the ’90s, “Far Behind” — and were into the band’s new songs too. It felt good. Then came the mayflies, in massive swarms.

The next stop on the tour was a festival along the Mississippi River in Iowa. I was up early, and as soon as we pulled in you could see mayflies dancing in the air all around us. As the day wore on, the flies intensified, and by nightfall any kind of light revealed hundreds upon hundreds of them, dancing in their own way like the crowd of unmasked fans below them. Also there were Confederate flags everywhere. Boats tied together on the river flew Trump flags in the warm summer breeze.

I was asleep when we crossed the river and made our way to St. Louis, the third stop on the tour and my last with the band. A great crowd: Close your eyes and you can easily picture yourself at Woodstock ’94. But it’s 2021 and Kevin Martin and company are still here.

Jay Westcott is a photographer in Arlington.

‘He Gave Me Life’

A Cuban single mother reflects on isolation with her son

Single mother Ara Santana Romero, 30, and her 11-year-old son, Camilo, have spent the past year and a half practically isolated in their Havana apartment. Just before the pandemic started, Camilo had achieved his biggest dream, getting accepted into music school. Two weeks after classes began, the schools closed and his classes were only televised. A return to the classroom was expected for mid-November, at which point all the children were scheduled to be vaccinated. According to a UNICEF analysis, since the beginning of the pandemic, 139 million children around the world have lived under compulsory home confinement for at least nine months.

Before the pandemic, Ara had undertaken several projects organizing literary events for students. After Havana went into quarantine and Camilo had to stay home, her days consisted mainly of getting food, looking after her son and doing housework. As a single mother with no help, she has put aside her wishes and aspirations. But Ara told me she never regretted having her son: “He gave me life.”

Natalia Favre is a photographer based in Havana.

Life After War in Gaza

A healing period of picnics, weddings and vaccinations

As I went from Israel into the Gaza Strip, I realized I was the only person crossing the border checkpoint that day. But I immediately saw that streets were vibrant with people shopping and wending through heavy traffic. There are hardly any working traffic lights in Gaza City, so drivers wave their hands out their windows to alert others to let them pass.

Despite the liveliness, recent trauma lingered in the air: In May, Israeli airstrikes destroyed several buildings and at least 264 Palestinians died. The fighting came after thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, where at least 16 people died. Workers were still cleaning up when I visited in late August, some of them recycling rubble — such as metal from foundations — to use for rebuilding.

I visited the city of Beit Hanoun, which was heavily damaged. I met Ibrahim, whose apartment was nearly destroyed, and as I looked out from a hole in his living room, I saw children gathered to play a game. Nearby there is a sports complex next to a school. Young people were playing soccer.

Back in Gaza City, families come every night to Union Soldier Park to eat, shop and play. Children and their parents were awaiting their turn to pay for a ride on an electric bike decorated with LED lights. In another part of town, not too far away, the bazaar and the markets were filled ahead of the weekend.

The beach in Gaza City is the most popular destination for locals, particularly because the Israeli government, which occupies the territory, generally does not allow them to leave Gaza. Families picnicked in the late afternoon and then stayed to watch their kids swim until after sunset. One of the local traditions when someone gets married is to parade down the middle of a beachfront road so the groom can dance with relatives and friends.

Amid the activities, I noticed that many people were not wearing face coverings, and I learned that the coronavirus vaccination rate is low. The health department started placing posters around the city to urge vaccination and set up a weekly lottery to award money to those who get immunized.

I also attended the funeral of a boy named Omar Abu al-Nil, who was wounded by the Israeli army — probably by a bullet — during one of the frequent protests at the border. He later died at the hospital from his wounds. More than 100 people attended, mainly men. They carried Omar to the cemetery and buried him as his father watched.

Salwan Georges is a Washington Post staff photographer.

Beyond the Numbers

At home, I constructed a photo diary to show the pandemic’s human toll

In March 2020, while the coronavirus began its universal spread, my world in New York City became my apartment. I knew that to keep safe I wouldn’t be able to access my studio, so I brought my camera home and constructed a small studio next to a window.

I began my days looking at the New York Times and The Washington Post online, hoping to find a glimmer of positive news. What I found and became obsessed with were the maps, charts and headlines, all of which were tracking the coronavirus’s spread. I printed them out to see how the disease had multiplied and moved, soon realizing that each of these little visual changes affected millions of people. With time, photographs of people who had died began to appear in the news. Grids of faces filled the screen; many died alone, without family or friends beside them.

This series reflects my emotions and thoughts through the past year and a half. By photographing data and images, combined with botanicals, my intent was to speak to the humanity of those affected by this pandemic. I used motion in the images to help convey the chaos and apprehensions we were all experiencing. I now see that this assemblage is a visual diary of my life during the pandemic.

Beth Galton is a photographer in New York.

Finding Hope in Seclusion

A self-described sickle cell warrior must stay home to keep safe

Onyekachukwu Onochie, who goes by Onyeka, is a 28-year-old African American woman born with sickle cell anemia. She describes herself as a sickle cell warrior who lives each day like it’s her last. “When I was younger,” she told me, “I thought I would live until my mid-20s because I knew other people with sickle cell that died in their 20s.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes sickle cell anemia as an inherited red blood cell disorder that causes those cells to become hard and sticky, and appear C-shaped. Healthy red blood cells are round and move through small blood vessels to carry oxygen, whereas sickle cells die earlier and transport less oxygen. The disorder can cause debilitating pain and organ failure.

In June 2020, Onyeka began preparing her body for a stem cell transplant — a new treatment — and underwent the procedure in April. She is now home in Winston-Salem, N.C., recovering from the transplant. Despite the positive results thus far, Onyeka’s immune system is compromised and she is at greater risk of severe illness or death from viruses.

I asked about her life during the pandemic. She told me: “My new normal includes video chat lunch dates. I have more energy now than ever before, but I have to stay indoors to protect myself from airborne viruses, among other things.” Onyeka believes she has been given a new life with endless possibilities — even though she is temporarily homebound.

Endia Beal is an artist based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Baker’s Choice

A fun-loving, self-taught baker decides to open her shop despite the pandemic

Tiffany Lightfoot is the owner and founder of My Cake Theory, where she merges her love of fashion with her gifts as a baker. Undaunted by the pandemic, she opened her first brick-and-mortar shop on Capitol Hill last year. Lightfoot, 41, combined the skills she learned as a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology with dozens of hours watching the Food Network and YouTube videos — and spun her self-taught baking into a business. With these photographs I wanted to show how much fun she has baking — while building a career she clearly loves.

Marvin Joseph is a Washington Post staff photographer.

Leap of Faith

Despite low vaccination rates, Sicilians resume religious parades

The island of Sicily has been overrun and conquered by numerous empires and civilizations. The year 2020 brought a new and deadly conqueror, the coronavirus. The lockdown was absolute — even church doors were shut tight. But in 2021, Sicilians brought life and traditions back to their streets.

Saint’s days, or festas, are important events on the Sicilian calendar. Last year, for the first time in more than a century, some towns canceled their festas. The arrival of vaccines this year seemed to offer hope that the processions would once again march down the ancient streets. However, a surge in summer tourism, while helping the local economy, also boosted the coronavirus infection rate.

Sicily has the lowest vaccination rate in Italy. Nevertheless, scaled-down celebrations have reappeared in the island’s streets. In the capital city of Palermo, residents gathered for the festa honoring the Maria della Mercede (Madonna of Mercy), which dates to the 16th century. Children were hoisted aloft to be blessed by the Virgin as a marching band played in a small piazza fronting the church that bears her name. Local bishops did not permit the normal procession because of the pandemic, so local children had their own, carrying a cardboard re-creation of the Virgin through the labyrinth of the famous Il Capo district’s narrow streets.

As the fireworks blossomed overhead and the marching band played on, it was easy to see that Sicilians were embracing a centuries-old tradition that seems certain to last for many more to come.

Michael Robinson Chavez is a Washington Post staff photographer.

Defiant Glamour

After long months of covid confinement, a fearless return to 2019 in Miami Beach

On Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive I’ve seen drunk girls hitting other drunk girls, and I’ve seen men high on whatever they could afford, zombie-walking with their mouths and eyes wide open amid the tourists. I’ve seen partyers sprawled on the pavement just a few feet from the Villa Casa Casuarina, the former Versace mansion.

I’ve seen groups of women wearing fake eyelashes as long and thick as a broom, and flashing miniature bras, and smoking marijuana by a palm tree in the park, next to families going to the beach. I’ve seen five girls standing on the back of a white open-air Jeep twerking in their underwear toward the street.

My photographs, taken in August, capture South Beach immersed in this untamed party mood with the menace of the delta variant as backdrop. They document young women enjoying the summer after more than a year of confinement. Traveling from around the country, they made the most of their return to social life by showing off their style and skin, wearing their boldest party attire. I was drawn to the fearlessness of their outfits and their confidence; I wanted to show how these women identify themselves and wish to be perceived, a year and a half after covid-19 changed the world.

Lucía Vázquez is a journalist and photographer based in New York and Buenos Aires.

A Giving Spirit

‘This pandemic has taught me to be even closer to my family and friends’

Marlise Tolbert-Jones, who works part time for an air conditioning company in Tampa, spends most of her time caring for her 91-year-old father, Rudolph Tolbert, and her aunt Frances Pascoe, who is 89. Marlise visits them daily to make sure they’re eating a good breakfast and taking their medications. In addition to being a caregiver, Marlise, 57, volunteers for a local nonprofit food pantry, where she helps distribute groceries for families. Also, she volunteers at her church’s food pantry, where food is distributed every Saturday morning.

“I’m doing this because of my [late] mother, who would want me to be there for the family and the community,” she told me. “I’ve had my struggles. I’ve been down before, but God has just kept me stable and given me the strength to keep going. This pandemic has taught me to be even closer to my family and friends.”

Octavio Jones is an independent photojournalist based in Tampa.

Moving On

First, people paused. Then they took stock. Then they persevered.

We all know the pandemic has challenged people and altered daily routines. I created this photo essay to highlight the perspectives and experiences of everyday people, specifically African Americans: What does their “new normal” look like? I also wanted to demonstrate how they were able to persevere. One such person is Maria J. Hackett, 30, a Brooklyn photographer, dancer and mother of a daughter, NiNi. Both are featured on the cover.

I asked Maria her thoughts on what the pandemic has meant for her. “Quarantine opened up an opportunity to live in a way that was more healthy while taking on much-needed deep healing,” she told me. “It was my mental and emotional health that began breaking me down physically. ... I put things to a stop as my health began to deteriorate. I decided I will no longer chase money — but stay true to my art, plan and trust that things will come together in a healthier way for us. I focused more on letting my daughter guide us and on her remaining happy with her activities and social life.”

“Enrolling her in camps and classes like dance and gymnastics led me to develop a schedule and routine,” Maria explained, “opening room for me to complete my first dance residency in my return to exploration of movement. I made time to share what I know with her and what she knows with me.”

Jasmine Hamilton of Long Island, 32, talked in similiar terms. She too became more focused on mental health and fitness. She told me: “The pandemic has demonstrated that life is short and valuable, so I’m more open to creating new experiences.”

Anastassia Whitty is a photographer based in New York.

About this story

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks and Chloe Coleman. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena. Design editing by Suzette Moyer and Christian Font. Editing by Rich Leiby. Copy editing by Jennifer Abella and Angie Wu.