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by Elaine K Howley

May 6, 2020

Heather Perry and Elaine DeBitetto are providing mementos to their subjects for free during this crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many people who weren’t deemed “essential workers” were laid off, furloughed, sent home, or otherwise found themselves idled virtually overnight. Among them was Heather Perry, an uber-talented freelance photographer and Masters swimmer based in Bath, Maine. Perry, who’s also SwimVacation’s on-board photographer and guide, says the fallout of lockdown orders was immediate and devastating. 

“I lost five weeks of overseas assignment work. It’s going to be a long time before anyone pays for what I do. That’s been hard to face professionally, but personally it’s been so hard to understand that what I do doesn’t feel essential,” she says.

Though millions of people staying at home often turn to the arts—film, television, literature, and yes, photography—for solace and entertainment during this pandemic, her situation as a freelance photographer who focuses on underwater images is currently quite precarious.

But Perry isn’t the sort to sit still for long. “I have to work,” she says. “It’s always been that way. For myself, I need to take pictures and tell stories.”

To fill that need to create, she soon hit upon a unique way to document the crisis in photo and audio by looking to a previous project as a jumping off point for her current Six Feet Apart Project.

In 2019, Perry and her SwimVacation partner Hopper McDonough developed a unique way to get to know their maritime neighbors working in the shipyard. Through the project, called Southgate Faces, Perry has created more than 60 portraits of community members and McDonough has captured audio interviews to accompany them. To get the images and audio, the pair set up a mobile photo studio at the yard, so the workers could stop by briefly during their 30-minute lunch breaks.

With the Six Feet Apart Project, Perry wanted to capture her neighbors’ pandemic experiences in the context of their daily lives as she had with the Southgate Faces project. But she wouldn’t have McDonough’s help because of social distancing requirements, so she adapted the concept and streamlined her gear to set up a mobile portrait studio with a backdrop and lights in the driveway or front lawn of people’s homes.

She uses a long-range lens so she can stay more than 6 feet away from her subject at all times. The subject does not touch any of Perry’s equipment during their brief interaction. And because she didn’t want to have multiple people speaking into the same microphone for the three- to five-minute interview, she set up a phone recording system. As she works and shoots photos of the subject speaking and their home environment from outdoors, she and the subject talk via cell phone about what it’s like to be in lockdown and how the pandemic has changed their lives. 

“My method of making portraits is to have them speaking about the topic of interest,” Perry says. “It allows them to quickly forget that the camera is there, even though there’s a backdrop and a light. When they get talking about their lives and their work, the camera sort of falls away and they’re inhabiting this headspace of whatever they’re talking about. I believe that shows on their face. My goal as a portrait photographer is to capture that look on their face and what they’re discussing in the photograph.”

The response to her project has been astounding, she says. “Initially, I didn’t know what the response would be,” so she started out with test portraits of her husband and son and McDonough and his family. She used those images to build out a simple website to give people an idea of the project concept. Within a week, she was flooded with requests for portraits and soon had to change the approach from accepting all comers to an application system. Changing approaches also helped her better curate the project to include a broader representation of Downeast Maine’s population.

In just a few weeks, she’s photographed more than 40 people, including a woman who was eight months’ pregnant and is unable to visit her father who’s dying of cancer. She’s also talked to a minister who explained how clergy workers are “prepared for death from the virus, but we’re not prepared for deaths from despair,” Perry recounts. The minister also spoke about the difficulty of properly mourning the dead in the time of the Zoom funeral.

But it’s not all Zoom, doom, and gloom. Perry also talked with an HR professional who had to furlough her company’s entire staff. But then some much-needed federal funding came through, so she called them all back and unfurloughed them.

Perry has also connected with James Wells, a 28-year-old, Maine-based swimmer who was training for the 2020 Olympic Games. “He came out of retirement to try for it again,” Perry says, “but now that there’s no Trials and no Olympics this year, what does that mean for a 28-year-old? How does he reconcile that?”

Taken all together, the portraits create a poignant, evocative snapshot of an anxious and deeply uncertain moment in the life of dozens of people. The execution hasn’t been immaculate, Perry says, but that lends a highly relevant element of imperfection. “The audio is very flawed,” she says, but “I think that lends a sense that desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Perry is not charging her portrait subjects for the images, which she shares freely. But the project has already yielded one paying assignment, and Perry, whose photos have appeared in SWIMMER magazine in the past, is hopeful that her photography career may yet survive these extraordinary times.

Doors of Hope

A couple hours to the south, in Concord, Mass., Elaine DeBitetto, a dental hygienist by day and a photographer on the side, had a similar response to being idled by COVID-19. “I was just in shock that first week, but I had to keep busy,” she says of being unable to go to work and workout like usual. “I never have time to do my photography stuff, so I decided I needed a little project to do.”

The accomplished triathlete and New England Masters Swim Club member initially thought she’d take photos of the empty streets of her normally-bustling small town, but “I saw people putting signs out,” and that triggered the idea of doing a photo project she’s calling Doors of Hope.

Like Perry, DeBitetto sets appointments with the people she wants to photograph. She’ll arrive at their homes, and they come out on the porch. Always staying at least 6 feet away, DeBitetto takes some photographs of the individuals holding a sign that carries whatever message they want to convey. It’s been a cathartic way to cope with the loss of swimming and the loss of her regular work routine. It also yielded a coveted byline in the Boston Globe.

The photo published by the Globe depicted a Concord nurse, Juliana Alva, who cares for COVID-19 patients at Lowell General Hospital, with her family. The kicker is she had to be shot while socially distancing from her own children. “She’s self-quarantined from her family” in a separate structure on the family’s property, DeBitetto says. “I couldn’t ask them to stand together for the photos.” DeBitetto shot a heart-wrenching image of Alva holding a sign that reads “Nurse Life,” while wearing a mask and sitting a few feet away from her young son. His sign reads: “All I want is a kiss …” and the pained expression on his face backs up that sentiment.

On the other side of the beleaguered mom stands her young daughter, whose sign reads “So far no fever!!,” and Alva’s husband, who’s been left to care for the kids. His sign reads, “Day #5 on my own. Help!! J

DeBitetto has shot the Doors of Hope project in stark black and white, which lends a timeless quality to a very time-specific project. And like Perry, she’s not selling the images, but rather giving them away for free to the people who’ve participated as a memento of a difficult time. For some, it’s not just a document of a pandemic, but a reminder of being home together as a family.

In addition to the photo project, DeBitetto has also pitched in to help caregivers on the front lines by assisting her boyfriend, David Kindler, a mechanical engineer who’s collaborating with two other Boston-based engineers to make face shields. That project, called Shields of Hope, has already created more than 1,000 masks that have been donated to local health centers. The group has launched a GoFundMe campaign to create more than 10,000 shields for South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Mass.

“The shield is very simple,” DeBitetto says. “It doesn’t have to be die-cut, and it doesn’t have parts that are made with a 3-D printer.”

Instead, the shields are constructed from a single sheet of clear, flexible plastic attached to a headband with an adhesive. The materials have all been donated and each shield takes about two minutes to assemble. The group is doing it all by hand and relying on the nimble fingers of a handful of volunteers in Greater Boston. Assembled shields are then donated to local health centers.

All of that, along with the photography project, has helped DeBitetto get through her time on furlough from work. Though she was called back to work on May 4, things are hardly back to normal. And her recent turn as a shield-maker has come in handy as she preps to see patients again.

“We modified the shields, so they can be used with dental loops,” the glasses that hygienists use to get a magnified view into a patient’s mouth, she says. Hygienists, who spend their days cleaning people’s mouths are “one of the most exposed and highest risk professions,” in terms of this pandemic because their machinery can aerosolize droplets that could contain active virus. It’s a concern for sure, DeBitetto says, but the face shield helps. And wearing her Shield of Hope is a tangible reminder of the good she and others have done to help others during this frightening time.


  • Human Interest