What do you do when your job — documenting life in the world — suddenly threatens your family? When the coronavirus pandemic was declared, photographers, who usually can’t work from home, faced a unique choice between telling the story that was unfolding and avoiding exposing themselves, their families, and their communities to a deadly illness.
Like women in other industries, many photographers who were parents took on a greater share of caregiving, leaving them burned out. Women who were used to shooting photographs out in the world found themselves in less familiar roles as stay-at-home moms. Others continued the tough balance of parenting and photography; homeschooling was added to the already difficult mix of irregular photo assignments, frequent work trips, and stiff industry competition. But as their camera lenses focused inside their homes, their routines were upended and reoriented.
BuzzFeed News spoke with 16 women photographers about the advice that has helped them manage and the lessons they’ve learned over the last year. They each had stories of fear, anxiety, and small, unexpected joys.
“March 2020 to March 2021 — the pandemic year — is the first time in my life I have spent more than even half the year at home with my family. I was lucky to be able to continue working, photographing the pandemic in the UK and the US, among other things — but for a great deal of the year, I was home, learning how to be a mother to two sons, a wife to my husband, and focusing on keeping busy, staying positive, and keeping fit. Being a photographer of intense assignments like conflict, humanitarian issues, and, this year, the global pandemic, is taxing both physically and mentally, so I work out pretty religiously. This image is of me and my youngest son, Alfie, who was about 15 months old in this picture, exercising in the garden. My older son, Lukas, used to copy me as well when he was Alfred’s age, and these moments helped me recognize the silver lining of the pandemic: time with my family.” —Lynsey Addario, London
“My daughter, at age 2, doesn’t know other children. She is isolated completely in our bubble. Our family unit is me, my mom, and her. I took these images for us in the past year. I know some women who have made their children into a creative project, but, to be honest, this year was really about survival for us.” —Andrea Bruce, Indiana
“Balancing work with life and kids is a regular practice in my life, so the major shift with the pandemic is balancing work with life and homeschooling kids. My son has a respiratory issue, so both children are still at home for the rest of the year. Between my coparent and me, I am the designated academic parent, so the majority of the schooling happens with me at home and means my work works around working with them.
“In addition to balancing work and normal life and kids, mental health has come into sharp focus during the pandemic. I suffered a pregnancy loss that had devastating aftereffects for me last year, and it took months to recover from that and a lot of very intentional effort. During a pandemic where everyone is isolated, mental health becomes more difficult to gauge; we need our communities and our people to hold us up and remind us of who we are, and things can get dark very quickly without that support. On the upside, this time has made it clear who is really in the inner circle of my social network, and there is a feeling of resiliency and power in those connections that is hard to recognize outside of crisis.” —Ash Adams, Anchorage
“As a photojournalist, I got to go out in the middle of the worst times of the pandemic. And even if I knew I was doing important work documenting and telling the stories of the communities around me, I was always very concerned about my exposure to the virus and, consequently, my family’s. It was my worst nightmare.
“Because of a possible exposure during an assignment I did on the COVID-19 floor of a hospital, I was told by health officials I had to quarantine for two weeks in my bedroom. It was a scary moment, waking up every day and thinking, I might get sick today. Luckily I didn’t get sick, and now I look back at it as the first paid vacation I’d had in many years — a true staycation, that is.
“As the mother of a teen, I didn’t go through what parents of younger kids went through, but I saw my son finish high school, get into college, and vote for the first time. My son’s high school graduation happened in our front yard. Two schoolteachers dropped by one afternoon and brought a surprise bag with his gown, cap and tassel, plus a shirt and a face mask. There was laughter and joy, and passersby and neighbors clapped.
“Among a million other things, the rites of passage have also changed this past year. As we try to adapt to a new world that is transforming in front of our eyes, it is very hard as a mother not to be able to look my son in the eyes and tell him that everything will be alright.” —Adriana Zehbrauskas, Phoenix
“Pandemic life mashes all activities into a big blob, most of which take place in one room of our house (ironically the least used room pre-pandemic). The components are there — school, work, involvement — but the lines between them are very blurry and often disappear. Our kids attend school virtually, and I have been promoted to stay-at-home-all-the-time parent. There is no individual separation of anyone’s time; we all exist as a unit. Work is often a brief reprieve from so much together time. Even a longer drive to an assignment alone is a welcome break. I would like to acknowledge the [our] heroes of COVID times: teachers, the neighbors who gave us their old trampoline, Lego, YA authors, Texas beaches, fellow freelancers, and the addition of two very lovely pet rats into our home.” —Annie Mulligan, Houston
“My son would have started pre-K this year — but at the start of the school year, NYC public elementary schools were only offering a few days per week, with no aftercare. With two working parents, that did not work for our family. Instead, we put him in an improvised homeschool pod with four other families from our neighborhood. We all help each other out and contribute however we can. As a photographer, I thought one way to give back to the group that I have really relied on would be to shoot ‘school portraits’ of all seven kids in the pod, like the kind they might have gotten at an actual school.” —Hannah Whitaker, Brooklyn
“We’re balancing two kids (18 months and 7 years), a dog, one person with a full-time job, and one freelancer who travels, and we’re trying to maintain an optimistic and nurturing environment. Today, for example, I called into my son’s 18-month pediatric appointment from a Walmart parking lot in the middle of South Dakota, where I’m away on assignment. He waved and blew me kisses through FaceTime like it was nothing new — because it wasn’t. Our 7-year-old, who is home from school this week after the building closed because of positive COVID-19 cases, was giving his brother bunny ears in the background.
“With the pandemic, there is no day-to-day routine in our house. It’s a constant stream of adapting to changes in our schedules. If one of the kids gets a fever, it’s no school or daycare until the fever is gone and they get a negative COVID-19 test. If another kid at school tests positive for COVID-19, the school closes for 10 days. When school is in session and I get local assignments, which are usually on short notice, the pickup and drop-off schedules have to be renegotiated. Will soccer practice be held virtually in our living room or in person? It depends on the weather; we don’t know until the night before. We drive by the grocery store, and if the line is too long to get inside, one of us will bring the kids home and the other will do the shopping.” —Sarah Stacke, New York
“Motherhood is this wonderful and difficult push and pull of belonging to yourself and to everyone else. During the pandemic, I have found so much solace in my little family. My daughter has slept in our bedroom, in a bassinet next to our bed, since she was born. When it is finally quiet and we are all in bed at the end of the day, I feel so much peace and comfort hearing her breathing along with my husband. For those few moments, before I completely pass out, everything feels OK.” —Bethany Mollenkof, Los Angeles
“This pandemic was nothing I could have ever prepared for — especially as a mother to a young child. Not only was she missing out on key elements of her development outside our home, it was difficult to truly recognize all the good and growth happening day by day. This image is the moment I had one of the biggest awakenings, among some other small ones, during the pandemic. My daughter was growing into a beautiful, intelligent, and unique human being. All this time I mostly worried, focusing on the bad, tough moments we had challenging our relationship, and here we were talking everything over as she gracefully moved through words and play, absorbing the evening sun. We made it through. We are making it through and are grateful.” —Maria Hackett, New York
“I often try to take on too much or don’t have the bandwidth [I need]. Early on in motherhood, several women suggested building a network of people to be able to count on and ask for help. That has been invaluable in the past year, when I thought my being around more would mean more time. Turns out that being home more just means I’m even busier than I’d imagined, and I can’t even tell you with what. The days just fill up. This network of support is a lifeline. I can’t do it all (even with a very supporting and immensely helpful spouse) and delegating what I can to others has opened up my universe.
“‘Balance’ is not a word in my vocabulary, because I can’t find it. I would say that I have a lot of boxes to check daily, and sometimes I add ‘self-care’ to that list. My two boys have to be in school early, one in person and one virtually. Zoom school, it turns out, is terrible for a multitude of reasons. For example: I hate having to be my son’s personal assistant — but also because it makes me feel guilty. Why don’t I enjoy sitting with my son and helping with math? Isn’t that an important part of his education I should be excited about being present for? I don’t know, but I hate it. A few weeks into Zoom school, we hired a college student to help. That not only gave me peace of mind but allowed me time to dedicate to my work before the school day ends. But in a nutshell, I try to care for my two boys, my two dogs, my career, make sure the house isn’t a crazy mess, and sometimes fit in a workout or a mediation. That’s my daily checklist.” —Victoria Will, New York/Seattle
“In March 2020, my daughters — these two siblings who are five years apart — suddenly had no one else but each other to play with. Despite frequent meltdowns, I saw them mature in their companionship, comfort each other, and transform into sisters in a palpable way. Simultaneously, the home had now become the studio, the office, the gym, the school, and the playground, so I found myself adopting my children’s toys and messes and folding them into my practice. And somehow — within that recalibrating chaos of canceled plans, cackles, tears, and tired eyes — slime found its way into my art.” —Manjari Sharma, California
“There have been so many times I’ve panicked about something and then laughed about it afterwards. I think that is just parenthood. Like, a few days ago, I was cleaning up the kitchen and noticed Levi sitting on the floor with his back turned to me. Curious [about] what he was so focused on, I walked around him to find him giggling as he opened and closed a pair of extremely sharp scissors. I did my best ‘hostage negotiator’ and calmly snatched them out of his hands without injury or tears. I swear, toddlers are constantly trying to injure themselves.” —Nancy Borowick, New York
“For me, there is no such thing as balance. My husband and I have two baby boys. I am a mother, wife, artist, speaker, and business owner who is learning to be at peace no matter the circumstances. My sister told me that I needed to show myself more grace. Everything may not go as planned, but it works out in the end. You must have faith.
“Due to the pandemic, our social interactions outside of my immediate family are limited. Most days, the boys and I take long walks with their Radio Flyer red wagon. These walks give me a chance to escape all the day-to-day work, deadlines, Zoom calls, etc.
“I selected a simple photograph of my boys in their red wagon. They are looking at a squirrel in the distance. It reminds me to focus on what is ahead, thereby giving me a sense of hope for the future.” —Endia Beal, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
“I remember CNN vividly as a child, rasping on nightly while hiding in my mother’s bed. My kids orbited around her bed this summer while we hurriedly turned off the ghastly news of death tolls blaring from CNN. My kids, oblivious to the news and happy to be with their grandparents every day now, were covering my mother’s bed with dirt from the farm they live on, bombarding her when she was trying to work. I rarely, if ever, photograph my mother — and being able to do so and to spend time with her and the kids together is one of the few highlights of this dreadful year.” —Lili Kobielski, New York
“It’s an odd mix of normalcy (cherubic dancers in pink, clunky and beloved) and the bizarre, with their little masked faces in a tent where cars traditionally park, being watched by adoring, socially distanced parents.” —Talia Herman, San Francisco
“For us, it hasn’t changed life too much. Sure, we have to remember to throw masks in our pockets for going into town — but since we live out in the woods, life can go on as usual for the most part. We still visit neighbors, get groceries, and participate in a couple extracurricular activities that have put pandemic precautions in place. Schools have been in session all year in Arkansas with little to no problems. My husband is a wildland firefighter with an often erratic work schedule — so with two kids, animals to feed, a garden to plant, meals to make, etc., I’m the one who is mostly at home trying to stay on top of all that. He definitely helps when able, but it’s really my load to keep up with. I rarely conquer everything I set out to but try to keep the perspective that our family just being healthy and together is the most important thing.
“While my two kids have always played a lot together, this past year has brought it to another level. Yes, there are arguments, but they really have become each other’s best friends and are constantly inventing games and play ideas. It’s been awesome to see them evolve and strengthen. And as a parent, I enjoy the humor in the ideas they come up with, like my son taking a ride across the ice.” —Terra Fondriest, Arkansas
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