In March, I went to a camera store in Mexico City’s historic center to buy film before the coronavirus locked the businesses down. I used to go to Donceles Street to look at the old cameras in display cases — the double-eyed Rolleiflexes from the 1950s and the stout Leicas from the ’70s. But this time, I carried a Holga 120 SF, a plastic camera that was introduced nearly a half-century ago as an affordable camera for amateurs, but whose strange aesthetics later became popular with professionals. I bought 17 rolls of black-and-white film for the Holga and chemicals for my darkroom. They would have to last the rest of the pandemic.
The images of sickness came to Mexico before the virus itself. We saw people in huge buildings in Brazil confined behind glass, paramedics in Italy rescuing old people from their homes, and cranes in China constructing emergency hospitals. The pictures were lurid, sharp and necessary because they informed us about the virus’s spread. But I wanted to work with a camera whose defects would mark the film unpredictably to reflect our confusion in these uncertain times. Thinking about the quarantine and how people have carried on despite the current limitations helped me work within my own limitations, knowing that I had only one switch to adjust the light on cloudy days and a rudimentary focus system.
When I rode around the city on my motorcycle in April, I saw that the virus had already spread far beyond the hospitals — it had entered people’s consciousness. I photographed a man selling pipe-cleaner spiders for kids, for a few pesos each, and an altar to Santa Muerte, the folk saint who personifies death, in a bridal gown and a face mask. The other images, the more classic ones — the crematoriums, the public cemetery, the nurses’ protests — came later, once I had time to consider our collective state of mind.
Few things about Mexico’s coronavirus outbreak were clear from the beginning, and few are now. As new cases fall in other parts of the country, infections in Mexico City and its surroundings reached what was supposed to be their peak — and hovered there for days. The country started to reopen hesitantly at the beginning of the month. I saw a young couple hold one another in a newly reopened park, more intimately, it seemed, than I’ve ever seen anyone do before. Although the future is still uncertain, we desperately felt the need to go outside and to be closer to each other.
Finding a different way to document this period — with the toy camera, its images marked by light that sneaks in through its seams or is distorted by its plastic lens — has at least given me a way of looking beyond the pandemic. It has not alleviated the overwhelming sense of consequence, but seeing each image emerge from the chemicals hidden in my laundry room during this time of quarantine helps me think about what we’ve lived through. Now, we are waiting for whatever may come.
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