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Documenting New York: Inside a Photographer’s Pandemic Diary

By Aislyn Greene

Oct 9, 2020

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Photo by Bill Hayes

Photographs, lists, and entries that reveal New York City through the eyes of writer and street photographer Bill Hayes.

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The photographs are a little shocking.

Nine months into the global pandemic, some of the images in How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic (Bloomsbury, August 2020) feel almost wrong. In one photo from writer and street photographer Bill Hayes—author of Insomniac City, partner to the late Oliver Sacks—three doctors sit on a stoop, unmasked, close enough to share droplets. Hayes shot it in early April, long before most of us were sewing masks, covering our faces in public places, and mastering the art of smizing.

The image—and the book, which spans the first 100 days of the pandemic in New York City—serve as a portal back to early March, and as a jarring reminder that our societal rules have changed in less than a year. Hayes began writing and shooting in early March, submitted the text to his publisher in May, published it in late August.

“How We Live Now: Scenes From the Pandemic” by Bill Hayes; cover courtesy Bloomsbury

He couldn’t have written it any other way.

“I sometimes think, ‘What if I’d gotten the commission today . . . to try to write a book about the early days of the pandemic?’ ” Hayes says. “I’m not sure I could have done it.”

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The September day we spoke, the skies near my home in the Bay Area were an eerie apocalyptic orange, thanks to wildfires burning north and south of San Francisco. I felt I could understand his frame of mind, how if you don’t document something in the moment, time softens the rough edges. It’s hard to go back, to remember how things really were.  

Which is why How We Live Now is so mesmerizing. It’s a living, breathing diary of the city in one of its darkest times—and a celebration of New York’s grit, its people. 

“It’s a little like losing your life while still being alive, this experience,” Hayes writes in the book. “Everything I knew in New York—everything we knew—is gone: stores, restaurants, concerts, subway rides, church services, movie theaters, museums, nail salons. When a memory comes, you almost wonder if it is true—it seems so impossible to imagine again—if it happened at all.”

The memoir is also a snapshot of the Before Times, of the experiences and people Hayes once took for granted. “I found myself naturally, instinctively weaving into the narrative recollections or reminiscences of New York as it was,” he says. “I really wanted to get a sense of how one’s life can change virtually overnight.”

The first chapters toggle between mournful lists—“the last time I went to brunch, the last time I shared a joint . . .”—and photos of life before (tango dancers on the pier, a pride parade) and life after (eerily empty subway stations, a woman sitting alone on a bench), and memories that popped up in those early days of quarantine.

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Hayes details an Uber ride to the airport, during which his driver, Abdul, confessed that he’s recently fallen in love so thoroughly, he can’t sleep. He shares the last time he took a subway before the city shut down, a ride set to music, when a young woman suddenly burst into song. He shares his post-Oliver New York, the one in which he feels, at times, unshakeable loneliness. (In ways he hadn’t planned, Hayes says How We Live Now is almost a sequel to Insomniac City, a memoir of his life with Oliver and in the city.)

Now, in the Not-Quite-After Times, Hayes certainly sees cultural changes. There are, of course, the ubiquitous masks. While fully in support of facial coverings, as a photographer, he finds them to be a bit of a barrier. “You can’t see people’s faces—you can’t see their expressions and if they’re happy or angry or whatever.” 

That hasn’t stopped him from shooting though. One of his recent favorites is a photo of two young gay men wearing matching outfits: orange short shorts, masks the same color orange, Hello Kitty T-shirts—they even have twin Frappucinos in hand. “If I gave it a title, [it] would be something like, ‘How to Make the Best Out of a Grim Situation,’ ” Hayes says with a laugh.

Even if he can’t see his fellow citizens’ expressions, he’s seen an increase in goodwill in the streets around him: “I think there’s been a real sense of thinking about, ‘My behavior . . . has an effect on my fellow New Yorkers.’ ” 

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And maybe just an ounce more softness? “Someone pointed out to me, very good-naturedly,” he adds, “that this pandemic has taught New Yorkers two things: how to wait in line and how to have greater patience.” 

Whether that will continue remains to be seen. Even now, months after he wrapped the book, things aren’t back to normal. (If there is such a thing.) But the characters we meet throughout—Alex the barber, Ali, the smoke shop owner who contracted COVID and survived—are back in business, Hayes says.

Recent changes for the better have given him a dash of hope. Fitting given that his book opens with an epigraph from Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now,” a short story published in 1986 about the AIDS crisis, then beginning to sweep over New York City. The quote ends: “There wasn’t anything one could do except wait and hope, wait and start being careful, be careful and hope. . . .”

Although he sometimes dreams of leaving the city, Hayes says he’ll stay here—as Sontag wrote—with patience and hope, until he understands where he, and the city, are at. “I definitely want to see it through the pandemic,” he says, “to get on the other side of the mountain.”

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