Somerville photographer Katherine Taylor has been putting a human face on the coronavirus crisis. Taylor created a website called Masks of Boston and a forthcoming virtual exhibit at the Somerville Museum.
“Who Do You Wear a Mask For?” features portraits of over 100 people wearing protective masks, accompanied by personal stories, told as textual responses to a set of questions.
Taylor said that she created the gallery of images as a reaction to the anxiety she was experiencing, channeling it into an expression of hope. After handing out masks to pedestrians on the street, she thought about what the coronavirus means to people at large.
A Panicked Genesis
“In my perception, I was taking it more seriously than a lot of people around me, and I had a lot of fear,” said Taylor. “I became fixated on masks. I realized that I could buy extra masks and give them out to workers.
“Talking to some of my friends, I realized that people were having very different experiences. Some people were at different levels of understanding what was happening, and it was emotional. For me, there was a lot of panic.”
Although Taylor would normally photograph her subjects in an indoor studio, this approach is not advisable under the conditions of the virus. Instead, she set up a space in her backyard, complete with a black velvet backdrop, lights and a regularly disinfected stool.
Control Amidst Chaos
By having control over the setting and environment, she creates a sense of uniformity. She does not censor anything that people said in response to her questions. She asks about the challenges, sources of strength and finally, “Who do you wear a mask for?”
Taylor developed portraits of a range of individuals, including a 29-year-old civil engineer, Olinda Cifuentes, and Emily Li-Nagy, a seven-month-old child. The answers to her questions varied.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone said that he wears a mask for “the most vulnerable in our community,” such as essential workers and immigrants on the frontlines. Hairdresser Linda Piper said that she wears a mask in support of the workers who put their lives at risk for the sake of the public.
Empathy and Altruism
“A friend of mine said, wearing a mask is an act of compassion,” said Taylor. “For me, it’s so much about respect and not wanting to cause harm to anybody. As we are in this globally, global health is now such a big thing.”
For herself, wearing a mask is a gesture of empathy and altruism, said Taylor. She endeavored to arrive at the underlying meaning behind putting on a mask, a symbol of protection for the people around oneself.
“It’s not just me and the guy at the corner store in Somerville,” Taylor tells Scout. “We’re all in this together. If we’re all self quarantining and doing these pretty dramatic steps to keep each other safe, a mask is the easiest thing to add to that mix.”