A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

What I See: What taking care of each other looks like in a pandemic

8 min
An elderly woman sits on her bed in a dark room, blowing out a single candle on a plated donut.
Photo by Paul John Bayfield
A funny thing happened when the whole world stayed home.

TV commercials showed more family-at-home imagery, and newspapers featured thoughtful articles exploring the need for flexible work hours; multifunctional office/living spaces; and how to work around children’s needs. It seemed that requiring the majority of people to be in their homes resulted in a far deeper interest in what happens at home.

In my own field of photography, I noticed prominent media outlets publish beautiful photo essays by photographers suddenly “grounded” by the pandemic from their go-where-things-happen assignments, and turning now to their children for a creative outlet, curious tourists in a strange country.

But the fact is, many talented photographers have explored caregiving in their work long before a pandemic forced them to stay at home. Mostly women, these photographers make images every bit as compelling as the best travel or conflict photography we see so often in magazines and newspapers. I was reminded that domestic space remains undervalued because it is primarily occupied by women and children.

Whether it is women who’ve chosen a life as both artist and caregiver, or men who have chosen to take a primary role in caregiving work, these photographers have elected to create photography in the trenches of caregiving. Because they live it, they document it with a deep understanding of its rhythms, demands and complexities.

As with all other aspects of caregiving work, the art made within its confines deserves greater recognition.

While other photographers have gained careers and awards by visiting, agile and fleet-footed, the whole surface of the globe, the photographers in this photo essay–measuring their pace to match the toddler, the elder, the infirm–dig deep into the intimate territory of home, pushing their creativity and stamina, immersive documentarians in domestic space.
Lesly Deschler Canossi 

Lesly Deschler Canossi is a photography educator and co-creator of Women Picturing Revolution, whose book Representations of Black Motherhood and Photography will be published in Spring 2021. Lesly works as an independent cultural producer, visualizing concepts, leading seminars, and curating panels for educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and corporate clients.
A young girl sits on a stool outdoors with her back to the camera. She has a blue cast on her right arm, and a dog lays down facing the camera to the left of the stool.
Tan Line Portrait Backyard, Beacon, NY 2019 from the series Domestic Negotiations (2012-ongoing).

“This photo of my daughter is from a series I created as an attempt to maintain my sense of autonomy as an artist while also navigating the heightened demands of partnership and motherhood. Amid these competing priorities, I struggled to find the time or mobility to do the research that informed my earlier photographs, so I had a choice to make: Make it work, or stop making work. I chose the former, plunging into the push and pull of motherhood, partnership, domestic landscape, and the role of mother as artist.”
Aniya Legnaro

Aniya Legnaro is a photographer living in Barbados with her family. Professionally, Aniya works as a documentary wedding and family photographer but her true passion comes from documenting personal stories.
A toddler boy lays on a bed between his two older sisters who are covered in their blanket.
“My son Otis has, for lack of a better word, infiltrated the lives of his big sisters. Whatever they are doing, Otis wants in on it — even sleeping. And they let him stay, unfazed and unbothered. Despite responsibilities they are not ready for, nor expected to take on, my daughters have become Otis’s surrogate moms. For most of their lives, I was a single mom. They saw the struggle and the strength it takes to raise children, especially alone. It’s not easy. I’ve taught them how to be kind, nurturing, patient — now I marvel to see them echo that mothering in their love for him.”
Chelsea Silberies

Chelsea Silberies is a badass mother, an empathetic photographer and a champion of parents everywhere. She lives in Belmont, MA with her family, her dog and cat and the ghosts of pets passed.
A young boy lays on his back on a bed, asleep with his arms behind his head.
“Rocky takes over the center of our bed before dawn. I’ve made several failed attempts over the past year and a half to transition him to his own bed. This sleep arrangement means I get far less sleep than I need. I wake up in the wee hours of the morning and cannot go back to sleep. I try to sneak away for some early morning peace but my absence often causes Rocky to wake early as well. I’m ready for him to be an independent sleeper, but I relish the closeness that comes from a shared bed.”
Paul John Bayfield

Paul John Bayfield is a UK-based editorial and documentary photographer. His ongoing project, “Keeping Mum,” is now in its third year. It is intended to be the first photo story that documents Frontotemporal Dementia from diagnosis to death.
An elderly woman sits on her bed in a dark room, blowing out a single candle on a plated donut.
“I have learned that mum does not know what birthdays are anymore, but still we try. This time last year mum would’ve happily sung along to “happy birthday” with me and laughed and blew out her candles. Now she is mute and a little confused, but she recognizes what she’s supposed to do from memory; however, her cognition has failed her, and she is soon distracted by the TV again. I like to think for a moment that she knows I’m making a fuss of her, and that she is loved every day, and not just this one.”
Heather Whitten 

Heather Whitten is a full-spectrum doula and a documentary photographer. Her work focuses on raising awareness and removing shame from all reproductive experiences. She lives in Tampa, Florida.
A pregnant woman sits on her bed with her legs off to the side. A baby crib is in the background full of toys and other items for caregiving.
“Christina leans into a contraction on her bed in her grandmother's home. She's in the early stages of labor with her first child, born during the coronavirus pandemic. I have been documenting people in labor for years, showing them the power and the peace that they experience throughout these significant days; it helps them process their experience. I became a doula to offer physical and emotional support, as well. The pandemic hasn't changed anything for me. It's important—now, more than ever, when the world around them is uncertain and wild—that people are still supported during their labors and that they are still able to have images from our time together.”
Rosem Morton

Rosem Morton is a documentary photographer and nurse based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a National Geographic Explorer, producing visual stories that focus on the intersection of health, trauma and resilience. 
Using a gloved hand, a nurse in glasses writes "Rosem" with a sharpie on her hooded and shielded personal protective equipment.
“I am writing my name on my hood, part of a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR). This hood used to be single-use only, but due to a shortage of supplies, I have to label it as mine for reuse throughout this pandemic. There are many conflicting scenarios for health care workers at this time. People call us “heroes,” and just as quickly ostracize us due to our proximity to the virus. People praise our work, then disregard public health practices. I feel the need to offer a more intimate view of the struggles we face as health caregivers, in hopes that a view of our reality will help the public understand the true impact of COVID-19.”
Sarah Waiswa

Sarah Waiswa is a Ugandan photographer, living and working between Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi, Kenya. Sarah’s award-winning work, which has been exhibited around the world, focuses on identity, isolation and belonging. Sarah is also a contributor to @EverydayAfrica.
A baby lies on a large bed with her parent smiles and lowers themselves down to play with her.
“My partner plays with Ria on our bed. Ever since the lockdown, she has had both of us at her beck and call, which may have left her a little needy. Now, every time we get into the car, she cries, probably because, in her whole lifetime, we have only ever left the house to go to her doctor's appointments.”
Neil Kramer

Neil Kramer is a photographer and writer from Queens, New York. A graduate of Columbia University, he has written for Disney TV and HBO. His photo project, Quarantine in Queens, has attracted attention for its touching and humorous interpretations of quarantine life.
An adult man assists his elderly mother with her beauty routine in her home. An old portrait of a man in a graduation cap, a black and white wedding portrait, and a mirror sit on a dresser behind them.
“I have many friends who’ve had to take on the role of caregiver for a parent. Not me: Although my mother is 86, she’s always been active, and had a better social life than I do! But the pandemic has changed this. She is at high risk for COVID-19, and has been mostly at home these past months. She feels isolated, seems older, and I have been forced to be more responsible for her. It's a whole new stage of the mother-son relationship that I want to document through photography.”
Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci is a New York-based, Israeli-born fine art photographer. When she encounters taboos in the subjects investigated in her work, she gently, beautifully, but with determination, kicks this door and marches in.
Photo courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, Holding Emmanuelle, 2008, from the series MOTHER

“One of the most significant experiences I had after giving birth—a theme I am determined to touch on in my work—was the strong, even primal, physical and sensual relationship between mother and child. Though vital to our kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing, this aspect of motherhood is not often addressed directly, maybe due to fear of confusing this intense, beautiful component of motherhood, with sex. 

One day at the playground, we mothers talked about the intimacy we have with our kids. I found the courage to ask, “Hey...when you pee, does your child climb in your lap?” Mother after mother said yes. I could sense that we felt like we needed permission to let ourselves enjoy the preciousness of these moments, even though there is a toilet involved—permission to embrace it, to give in.”