• Mark White

My Covid Walks: Day One

A worker at a city moorage takes her morning coffee alone.

In early March I returned to Seattle from a two-week east coast visit that took me through Charlotte N.C., Washington D.C. and NYC. In the days that followed my return to Seattle, it seemed that every morning we woke up to a new pandemic news break: more nursing home deaths, emergency rooms filling up, travel restrictions, businesses closing down. It was of course a strange time for everyone. For me, since I was not a front-line worker and I had a job that allowed me to work from home, it was a time filled with more curiosity than concern.

When Amazon.com ordered their tens of thousands of downtown Seattle employees to begin working from home on March 13, the end-game was clear: downtown Seattle would soon be shuttered. Who knew for how long, but the streets had already started emptying out Amazon made their announcement.

About My Seattle Covid Walks: During Washington State's Stay at Home orders between March and May, I took regular walks through the city to capture what life on the streets was like. This post covers my walk on March 14, days after Amazon.com announced a work-from-home mandate, and about a week before Washington would institute a formal Stay at Home order.

That's when I turned my curiosity into my Covid Walks -- neighborhood walkabouts with my camera through Seattle. My purpose was to explore and document what Covid was doing to my community, especially the street community of buskers, vendors, homeless people, and artists who relied on downtown areas for survival.

Here are a few themes that emerged on that first March 14 Covid Walk -- themes I would continue to explore for the next few months as Covid kept Seattle's day-to-day commerce shuddered.

Buskers Silenced

Busker James Nason at Pike Place Market on March 14

Pike Place Market was my first stop on March 14. Ten million visitors pass through the market stalls every year, but at high noon on that day, this is what Pike Place looked like.

Buskers like James Nason are part of the market's soul. I hung with him awhile -- not a single person passed by to drop a dollar in his guitar case while I was with him -- and I asked him how he could continue to play under these circumstance.

"I don't have a choice, this is what I do," is all he said, and he kept on playing.

Of all the early images of Seattle under Covid, this one of James, and a picture of pianist Jonny Hahn, which I'd take a few days later, are the most indelible to me.

That our street music could ever be ever be silenced was unimaginable, but here we were, on the verge of a thorough and prolonged silence.


Pike Place Market, March 14.

Climbing the steps that lead up to the market from Western Avenue.

A theme that quickly emerged in my walkabouts was the solitary aspect of city living. Group walking, exercising, playing and gathering had already become rare. Even during my first Covid Walk, groups of people were nowhere in site.

Masks? Very few of my captures from those early days were masked.

From a photographer's perspective, Covid simplified my work. Framing individuals on the fly is much easier than capturing a balanced composition of several people in group settings. I now have hundreds of shots taken throughout the spring of solitary walkers like this man waiting for a train to pass.

A man waiting for a to train to pass.

Urban Tents & Homelessness

A tent encampment set up at Victor Steinbrueck Park, one of the most popular and trafficked parks in Seattle.

The most unsettling aspect of Seattle's post-Covid reality was the overnight, highly visible proliferation of homelessness. The city has long been challenged with homelessness, but the pandemic exasperated both the reality of it, as well as the optics.

Shelters had to turn people away in order to abide by the new social distancing rules, so overnight there were suddenly many more (mostly) men sleeping on sidewalks, in vestibules, and in tents that they pitched in public places.

Although I did not realize it at the time I took these shots, the city's core service groups that normally attend to street populations -- including the police -- effectively disappeared. Homeless shelters and service centers and their brave and committed front-line workers still operated, but none of the agencies that normally keep the homeless "out of sight," to put it crassly, and take care of emergencies in public places, were operating. Like other businesses, they were staying at home.

As a result, tents took over prime city real estate and proliferated throughout downtown, along sidewalks, in alley ways, and across virtually every neighborhood in the city's downtown core and beyond.

Empty Spaces

Seattle's Pier 57 on March 14.
The pier in late November with the squid fishers.

In the months of shutdown, I came across many other photographers roaming the streets, capturing the empty space that now filled their viewfinders, and that filled the city. To be honest, it was a photographer's dream to have unfettered access to the architecture and skylines of the city.

Shooting empty spaces is high skill. It's easy to show the "nothing" that is there -- anyone with a camera of any type can do that -- but to capture the essence of a space's "aloneness" -- the void that has set in -- is a high art.

Over the next three months during my Covid Walks, I'd be challenged many times over to capture that void. Eventually social distancing signs and other forms of warnings to passersby would be installed in public places like this pier.

The signage would effectively remove the void and convert the spaces into living museums or art installations. But in the early days of the shut down, all clues withinin my images pointed to a hasty exit, a rush to the exit for the people who inhabited these spaces. A sprint out of downtown to shelter at home, leaving the spaces exactly as they left them, leaving them to their own devices.

If you like my photography, please subscribe to this blog and let me send you a weekly Street Pic. Every Monday I'll drop a new photo from my walkabouts into your inbox, along with a few updates. You can also connect with me on Instagram, but I'm much happier to connect with you here.

© 2016-2020 MARK WHITE  |  mark@mjwhitephotos.com I 206.409.1247

  • Facebook
  • Instagram