Photographing the Collective Experience of Self-Isolation

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At The Bitter Southerner, Jesse Davis narrates the work of photographer Jamie Harmon, who took a portable lighting kit and a telephoto lens into communities in Memphis, Tennessee, to make portraits of people living in quarantine.

The photos, despite the required space needed to abide by social distancing guidelines, are wonderfully intimate. They bypass race, gender, and economics to capture people doing their best to self-isolate for the greater good of the community.

In the Bluff City, where gatherings are a way of life, taken for granted, Harmon, camera in hand, sets out to document the new normal. With his “Quarantine Portrait” series, he peeked — always with permission — through windows and into Memphians’ lives, capturing a slice of what life looks like under lockdown. The series is understandably somber at times, but the images resonate with an undeniable sense of hope. Perhaps paradoxically, there is something inherently community-minded in these photographs of isolated individuals. Many of these photos were taken before Mayor Jim Strickland’s “Safer at Home” order went into effect on March 23 — three weeks ago now — and before the lack of leadership from the federal and, particularly in the South, state governments became as obvious as it feels today. As such, Harmon’s quarantine portraits show Memphians self-isolating in an act of solidarity — stepping up to fill the void of leadership with individual sacrifice.

“No matter what we do, this is a collective experience,” Weinberg says, articulating the truth made apparent by this health crisis and Harmon’s portraits. COVID-19 arrived in one of the most divisive moments in recent memory and attacked without regard to age, party affiliation, or other arbitrary qualifiers. In doing so, it put bright light on simple truths: A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable members, and the lines we draw to divide us often do far more harm than good. Harmon’s series makes that plain — the houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings represented are from various neighborhoods and income brackets. Harmon’s lens captures prominent members of the community alongside now-out-of-work service industry folk. Straight, LGBTQ, black, white, Latinx, Asian-American, young, and old — all members of the Memphis community, all willing to sacrifice their own desires for mobility to the greater good.

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