How does our mind’s eye view the world without us? The images of vacant spaces, once dynamic, capture a departure from our everyday norms and instead present an alternate reality absent our presence. Is this one of the reasons I find urban exploration photography so captivating? Urbex environments are like alternate realities emptied of human life. Urbex imagery exposes how swiftly we can become estranged from our everyday lives and how our surroundings can suddenly become fragile and tenuous. The urban explorer uses the camera to show where we once were but no longer are.
Just like my urbex photo representations, the COVID-19 pandemic drives abandonment to a new alternate reality level. Images of evacuated streets and institutions make our common spaces unfamiliar. While life quarantined indoors in late spring 2020, I captured some of the external environment emptied of life. As I shot the silent streets, I often felt alone in a desolate haunted space – and unlike abandonments, the setting was neat and tidy – unnatural to my urbex eye.
So many images of city life assume that hordes of people are always present. In the time of COVID, such scenes exposed only a few lonely figures, if any. The bigger picture, though, is that the fear of the pandemic has fostered a new fundamental fear – the fear of each other. These photographs exposed how swiftly we can become estranged from our everyday lives and how our surroundings can suddenly become something unstable. Images of empty public spaces, similar to photos of abandoned sites deserted for decades, reveal the myth that we are indispensable to such space existence. Instead, we lived in heartbreaking silence. When will things return to normal? Will they ever return to normal? Dramatic reality reshapes our mindsets and forces us to absorb and internalize everything as we solo-walked through our new alternate reality.
What day is it? During the lockdown quarantine period, every day felt like a Sunday because we did not hear the sounds of weekday rush-hour traffic, nor did we hear the sounds of arena sporting events or pub crawls. We lived in tragic stillness. To me, each day felt like an urban exploration Sunday – wake up early, venture into the wilderness, and grasp the essence of abandonment and silence. I expect this type of abandonment and silence, but when an ordinarily hyper-active city abruptly is forced into a silent pause, our brain is oversensitive to such modification. In this case, silence is not merely a lack of commotion; it joins with the fear of human contact, along with fear’s cousin, suspicion.
Just as we attempted to acclimatize to our novel heartbreaking muted world, however, in tandem, another shock greeted our new sphere – the death of George Floyd. Instantaneously, our pandemic fears were momentarily pushed aside for a new crisis that brought forth protests coast to coast. Just a week before this event, Americans were isolating themselves, but suddenly, fears were kicked to the curb to present a voice to the world. These dynamic actions, though, demonstrate another type of abandonment – abandonment of needed institutional parameters. The contemporary protests must be viewed in the context of an institutional void. These protests are the organically driven mass shout of people anguishing under a system that no longer works for many. The system seems to be hindering personal stakes rather than helping. Are we facing the ultimate abandonment of democracy as well? Public trust is at stake. The erosion of democratic protections such as the eyes of the free press, the impartiality of the law, and the transparency of governing actions, moved the needle of public trust into negative territory. The protesters rallied against a fragmented system that was unable to respond to all that troubles America. Such a hollowed system might collapse in short order with the next straw on the camel’s back.
I wrote this piece at the height of the COVID pandemic and amid the nationwide protests of 2020. A new crisis, though, has since emerged since I completed the above thoughts – the January 6, 2021 insurrection at our citadel of democracy, our Capitol. What will it take to reinstate social bonds and restore democracy to our Founders’ principles? If skepticism continues to permeate our system, our country’s regime will collapse, and democracy will enter the door of abandonment and present a silence I do not want to experience.