Curated by Daniel Schwartz
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global health emergency. One year later, VII Photo Agency photographers set out to document the stories of ordinary people throughout the world.
The Visual Artist.
Photographed by Nichole Sobecki.
Cyrus Kabiru, a visual artist known for his sculptural eyewear, has found a way to respond to the uncertainty and loss brought on by COVID-19 through his creative work, photographed here in his studio in Thika, Kenya, on June 12, 2020. This pandemic series explores questions around social distancing, African responses to the novel coronavirus, and figurative interpretations of the virus itself.
Cyrus is also working with several other artists to make and distribute masks for free to those who need them, focusing on the thousands of Kenyans forcibly displaced from Sewage by the government — the same neighborhood where he grew up. Kenyan authorities forcibly evicted more than 7,000 people from the neighborhood known as Sewage, for an adjacent treatment plant this past April, defying a court order and leaving many stranded and homeless in the midst of the pandemic.
Photographed by Valentina Sinis.
Marco, a 33-year-old Italian locksmith and handyman, is photographed on January 16, 2021, in London. He is self-employed and works for a company. He arrived in London four years ago with his partner and has been doing this job ever since. His work is considered essential.
During the first lockdown in the UK, his work decreased dramatically, but he was always on standby. When the second wave of COVID-19 hit the UK, he returned to work almost every day, even though the danger of infection had increased dramatically.
Marco travels independently in his van, “I consider myself lucky in this respect, as I do not risk being infected by taking public transport.”
However, Marco says he is not completely out of the woods, as he has almost daily contact with customers. Frequently, he has to repair houses where the inhabitants do not respect the rules of social distancing or do not wear masks. Marco says, “A few times I had to go to houses where someone was COVID-positive. As a rule, they have to warn us beforehand so that we can better organize our safety procedures. I don’t feel comfortable at all when this happens!”
When he gets home, Marco immediately changes his clothes and takes a shower. He does not want to infect himself and his partner or the other inhabitants of his shared house.
Despite all these difficulties, he sees the pandemic era as a “historic time that not everyone has the chance to experience and tell its stories when he gets old.”
Photographed by Eric Bouvet.
Sylla Sadia, a 52-year-old baker, is photographed in Paris on January 26, 2021.
“Bread is life. It was like during wartimes — so many people came to buy bread. All day there was a long line.
“I had to work a lot to learn [the trade]. I had respect when I was a kid in Guinea, but here in France I learn the work — this is the country of workers.
“I am the owner of the bakery, and my son works with me. I have six employees. The lockdown is strange. It is a dark period without visibility. I am anxious.
“As an African, I am privileged to be the owner of a bakery, but France gave me everything. For sure I have worked hard, I take care of people, I respect people, so… here I am with the culture and the education, we will survive.”
The Retired Security Employee.
Photographed by Leonardo Carrato.
Marçal, 72 years old, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 21, 2021.
“I’ve been working in street security for about six years. I am already retired, but since the income is not enough even though I have a simple life, I need to keep working. With the pandemic, I was mainly afraid of my commute to work. I come by public transport from where I live and as there was a reduction in the number of buses, they got even more crowded. Even taking all precautions, it is impossible to feel completely safe.
“The residents of this street, who are the contractors, did not allow a break or a rotation during the long hours of the shift so that we could stay longer at home. It is hard to believe that they think more about their own safety than about our health, but I am used to it. Many of them don’t even greet us on a daily basis. We have to be on alert day and night, but to them, we seem invisible. I’ve worked my whole life, since I was a boy, and it taught me to move on because I need the money to survive.”
The Single Mother.
Photographed by Mary Gelman.
Polina is a solo mother from Saint-Petersburg, photographed on July 25, 2020. “Quarantine didn’t change my life, because it began in April 2019, when my daughter was born. I have been in isolation for much longer, and not just me, but many mothers on maternity leave. There was anxiety in the background of general news. I was afraid of the unknown, of the future. But I found a job, and those years were not so bad.”
The Real Estate Agent.
Photographed by Seamus Murphy.
Marisa Ribeiro, Vauxhall, London, January 19, 2021.
Marisa is a real estate agent who has recently assumed ownership and the running of the family fish and vegetable shop.
“Covid’s been good for business, we’ve been really busy. We’ve stayed open the whole time. We closed to do some work to allow for extra space because it was quite tight for people to be able to go in and out without bumping into each other.
“The Portuguese community are putting their good fortune so far to their consumption of alcohol. If alcohol gel works in your hands, then it’s working on the insides, that’s their theory! Until obviously, and hopefully not, something tragic happens close to them, then they’ll take it a bit more seriously.
“My granddad in Madeira passed away in December, and that was really hard. Because obviously being in Madeira, you need to isolate for five days. So we had to put his body in the freezer to be able for everyone to make the funeral. So I shipped off my parents to the island for a few days and I stayed here because it was just before Christmas. We had loads of orders.
“The reaction within the Portuguese community to the vaccine is a bit of a mixture. Men in general rarely go to the GP, but we know of a few people from the community that have successfully received the first dosage, some even the second.
“As a community, I believe they will get vaccinated when invited, especially if airlines and overseas governments decide to put travel restrictions on those not vaccinated. The Portuguese love and miss going home.”
The Bartender and Concert Promoter.
Photographed by Ashley Gilbertson.
Matthew Paneth, 29, a bartender and concert promoter, at The Emma Peel Room, a bar on the Lower East Side, in New York City, on January 24, 2021.
“The last year has been entertaining and terrible,” Mr. Paneth says. “Everything’s been changing by the day, and we’re all going through it. There are new rules, sometimes weekly, that devolve — making less and less sense as we move through this. And we’re scared for our jobs — that we might not be following arbitrary rules closely enough while trying too hard to make everyone —the State and the customers — happy. And then, a hurricane or a snowplough will come through and just erase all the hard work.”
“Here, at the bar, we’ve always been here in the community and for the community. And by being here, I’m not touching 50 people’s lives every day — maybe it’s six, and for now that’s enough. My regulars keep my job afloat, but they also keep my life afloat. Since the pandemic, it’s become clear there’s no way to make it as someone who doesn’t care, who just turns up and does their job. You’re not going to survive if you’re not caring about your community — I mean, what else is there?”
The Sex Worker.
Photographed by Ilvy Njiokiktjien.
Sex worker Foxxy Angel, 39, is photographed at the Prostitution Information Centre in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on June 30, 2020.
“The pandemic has been very difficult for us as sex workers. Ever since the pandemic started, we have been struggling. At the start of the pandemic, we closed down for 3.5 months. Luckily, we were finally able to open up again later in the year. But that only lasted a few weeks, and in December we closed down again, until now. It has been hectic for all of us. And many of the sex workers do not get help from the government. They are struggling in many different ways.
“I do get government support, luckily, as I am self-employed, and self-employed sex workers do get support most of the time.
“I get a lot of messages on my phone from clients. They are at home, sometimes very frustrated. Many of them rely on the services sex workers provide. I feel our job is not seen as important, but it definitely does serve a purpose in society.
“The clients that message me are sitting at home, all day with their wives. And I know for a fact that that is not always working out properly.”
Photographed by Christopher Morris.
On January 6, 2021, my day began at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C., near the White House after just driving 15 hours from my home in Florida — a drive I took without any commitment of an assignment. You could feel the potential for something bad to happen in the nation’s capital that day.
I was not one minute out of my vehicle when I encountered a group of around five or six Trump supporters wrapped and dressed in the American flag. From a distance of around five meters, I lifted my camera to take my first picture of the day. This small group of supposed patriotic Americans started taunting me for having my face wrapped in a mask and scarf. As I looked around and scanned the crowd with my eyes, it became quite apparent to me that no one was wearing a mask. Quite literally thousands and thousands of people were crammed waiting for their dear leader who called them to Washington to protest what he called an “illegal election” or a “stolen election.”
This was a day that I would have to fight for my life on the east side of the Capitol Building. Five times in 45 minutes that afternoon I would have to fight off angry Americans who looked at me with extreme hatred. Now, not only was I fighting to avoid the invisible COVID-19 that surely was in the air of a mad, screaming lunatic crowd of non-science believers, but Americans were literally going insane right before my eyes. Americans who either accused me of being an Antifa agitator or better yet, when I would scream back, “I’m not Antifa, I’m press,” while showing my press card, I was now “the enemy of the people.” “Ohhh, we hang enemies of the people.”
This was my day in America that January 6.
The Mental Health Worker.
Photographed by Ed Kashi.
Alexandra Marie Airey, 27, is a mental health worker who is simultaneously getting her master’s degree from Rutgers University while working full time at Jersey City Medical Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, photographed in Montclair, New Jersey, before starting her shift on January 25, 2021.
Photographed by Ziyah Gafic.
Sarajevo, April 2020.
I went to the funeral of one of the very first victims of COVID-19 in my town. He was also a victim of the by now infamous “patient path.” It took months for the already crippled Bosnian healthcare system to figure out how to treat patients with this new, unpredictable and fearsome illness. The hospitals were reluctant to receive the patients with the convenient but nonsensical excuse to not let the virus in hospitals.
Sarajevo’s main cemetery is beautiful, well kept and located in the city (we like to keep our dead close to us). The Muslim section is all white, with tombstones made of virgin white marble. The Catholic section is filled with black, impeccably shiny marble headstones; the Christian Orthodox with its elaborate, monumental gravestones with chiseled portraits of the deceased; the Jewish with the Star of David engraved above the names of the dead. My grandparents are buried there, friends too. The person I was named after lies there too — my father’s best friend, lost in the Bosnian mountains years before I was born. During the war, the cemetery was in proximity of the frontline. I remember when I first went there to see what happened to graves of loved ones. I saw tombstones pierced with shells, shattered marble was everywhere, so were unexploded shells.
April is the cruelest month, said T.S Eliot. April always comes big to Sarajevo, often too hot to handle. Sarajevo was liberated from the German occupation on April 6th, the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 began on April 5th.
April 2020 was hot, too. By chance, I went to the funeral of one of the very first casualties of the pandemic. Muslim funerals are usually crowded, that is the last chance to forgive anything for which the deceased might have wronged you. The final words at Muslim funerals in Bosnia are: “Are we going to forgive the deceased?” This funeral was nothing like this. Lockdown procedures were already in place, only the closest family came. Muslims are not buried in coffins usually, but in “tabut,” wrapped in white and covered in green cotton sheets. This coffin was metal, sealed as to not let out this novel death creep out. The Imam said the prayer from a distance. Usually family members put the coffin in the grave, but this time it was a team of undertakers, dressed in full hazmat suits, sweating and panting in the cruel April sun.
Photographed by Nichole Sobecki.
Portrait of Raymond Brian, a non-binary Ugandan refugee who goes by the name of “Mother Nature,” outside the safe house he helped found in a Nairobi suburb, on June 19, 2020.
Mother Nature had been approved to relocate to the United States before the coronavirus crisis hit and all resettlement was put on indefinite hold by the IOM. For gay and transgender Ugandan refugees in Kenya, such delays comes with immediate risks. “The delay was really traumatizing,” he explained. “I went numb, then blamed myself, before accepting that it was out of my control. But homophobia has been on the rise since the pandemic began — people are looking for someone to blame and we’re a popular target. So it’s stressful.” A friend of Mother Nature’s committed suicide last month.
Sexual minorities are persecuted in Uganda, where lawmakers have made serious attempts to institute the death penalty for gay sex. In Kenya, those acts are also illegal and theoretically punishable by up to 14 years in jail. More commonly, the law is used by the police as a pretext to extort and harass members of the LGBT community.
Nearly 500 migrants in Kenya (and more than 3,000 across Africa, and 10,000 worldwide), the vast majority of whom are refugees, have had their approved resettlement to third countries put on indefinite hold by the coronavirus. Some include LGBTQ, who face immediate risks due to the delay, struggle to find work, and face harassment by authorities. Queerness remains illegal in Kenya.
Photographed by Seamus Murphy.
Father Hugh MacKenzie, Westminster Cathedral, Victoria, London, January 22, 2021.
Catholic chaplain at Westminster Cathedral and St. John and St. Elizabeth Hospital. He was ordained at Westminster Cathedral 25 years ago.
“COVID-19 has more directly brought suffering into the world in people’s lives. In the Bible, pandemics, and pestilences, are sometimes interpreted as punishments or chastisement. So we’re within that tradition, but for the modern age, we’re trying to understand what that means. Most bad things are related to humans mucking up the environment, not just physically but also particularly spiritually. And so we’ve tried to explore that both in sermons and in one-to-one conversations. We don’t want to give the idea of a sort of arbitrarily angry God, that’s not the God we believe in, in the Catholic tradition.
“In the first lockdown, I was just walking across a zebra crossing and one person walking in the other direction said to me, ‘What’s all this about father?’ I’d never met the person before so it was all slightly tongue in cheek, and I said it was about you changing and saying sorry for things. And then he said, ‘I don’t have anything to say sorry for.’ So as the conversation went on, he recommended something to me to look at on the internet. So I said, okay, I’ll do that as long as you type into Google ‘examination of conscience.'”
The Building Superintendent.
Photographed by Ron Haviv.
Building superintendent George Valentin, 36, cleans his buildings with disinfectant to slow the spread of the virus on April 14, 2020, in NYC.
Thinking back about that time, George says he “was thinking about everything, about close friends and family dying.”
“I was really worried about everyone close to me. I was just going day by day. It was new. I was just scared. I wanted to keep everyone safe and help people as much as I can.”
Photographed by Anush Babajanyan.
Levon Sahakyan,18, at the Rehabilitation Center Of the Armenian Red Cross Society, in Yerevan, Armenia, on January 27, 2021. Levon was injured fighting the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
“During the days of the war, nothing happened [in connection to COVID-19]. Everything related to the war was the priority, and whatever related to the coronavirus was not considered, and it probably should not have been, during the time. That [COVID-19] we could overcome, but this was overall difficult.”
The Jeans-Wear Maker.
Photographed by Eric Bouvet.
Julien Tuffery, 34 years old, photographed in Florac, France, in April 2020. He runs a jeans manufacturing company that has been in operation since 1872 and was started by his great-grandfather.
“The virus was like an earthquake when it happened. The lives of my 20 employees changed overnight. But with common sense, we made 200 masks that we gave to the people. Then in the face of so much enthusiasm, with the local craftsmen, we made 80,000 masks for free to be distributed in our department of Lozère. It gave us even more energy despite this enormous work. We have always worked, and none of us got sick. We took care of each other. This virus has revealed our values. I am proud of my team who know how to do a good job to make our customers happy, with whom we have a direct relationship, and who want quality clothing from a local manufacturer.”
The Communications Adviser.
Photographed by Linda Bournane-Engelberth.
Marianne Melgård, 42, Oslo, Norway, January 15, 2021, a divorced person living alone.
“I work as a communication adviser, and during lockdown in Norway all my work is managed through the home office. It is hard to live alone and work from home during the lockdown. The feeling of isolation is even harder on people that live alone, when all your social and work life is moved to the screen.”