“A City Ruptured” with Ashley Gilbertson and Renee Melides

https://theviifoundation.org/event/a-city-ruptured-with-ashley-gilbertson-and-renee-melides/The New York Times Editor Renee Melides and VII Photographer Ashley Gilbertson discuss their year of COVID-19 coverage in New York City, the concepts behind the work, the production of a months-long story, and the importance of collaboration on projects in this event.



Ashley Gilbertson: So, everybody, thanks for joining us today. My name is Ashley Gilbertson, I’m a photographer with VII and I freelance for the New York Times. And Renee, you are?


Renee Melides: I’m a photo editor at the New York Times, and fellow Australian as well.


Ashley: What time is it where you are right now?


Renee: Ah, it’s just hit 11:03 pm in the evening so just short of midnight. So we’ll pretend it’s 9:03am. And I feel fresh, like got a cup of tea, got a cup of coffee. It’s like I’m there.


Ashley: Right. You have been working tirelessly on not just my story, but all the stories from Australia. So I appreciate that you’re here with us today and you’ve been like working your ass off on these stories. This story as I’ve been doing it the most ridiculous times, like Renee would turn up to meetings, like 5:00 a.m. your time. Just anyway, it was it was a bit of a hole at times, I think.


Renee: We didn’t always put the camera on for those ones. But um, we got there.


Ashley: So Renee works at the photo editor at the business section. And we met back in March, no, February for a coffee because I wanted to talk about a story that I thought we could work on together, which was looking at the COVID-19 as it came into New York. And it was probably the most unique pitch meeting I’ve ever had in my entire life because I had an idea of what I wanted to do, which was go around and look at how the world and the United States and New York in particular would change as the virus came. So the city was still acting totally as normal, I mean, you couldn’t buy toilet paper as easily as usual, but otherwise it was pretty much the same. But then I started changing sort of really quickly and overnight. So we met for a coffee and midway through my pitch, Renee was like, Good. Go, go shoot. I had my camera on my bike and I walked outside and started working you got the you got the bill. And like we were off and it was two weeks of just intense work on the first story that we did, which was a Coronavirus, Coronavirus economy. So, and then the second pitch was a little bit different. This was much more of a I mean, both stories are collaborative in the in the production, but then the second pitch was actually a lot more collaborative because I had pulled back from my coverage, because I didn’t know how to keep my family safe, like photographing in a disaster is a little bit different when you’re with your family, right? So you can’t go back to a hotel, much like you would do with cholera or Ebola, you have to go home, which means you have to work really differently. So I pulled back, I did a couple of jobs here and there. And I vaguely recall, Renee, give me a call and saying, why are you doing that when you said you couldn’t work? Because I would use you. But it was all..


Renee: Yeah, you can’t hide that from me.


Ashley: I know it’s true. (Laughs)


Renee: I’m not gonna lie. When I saw you out there shooting I was like a bit salty. I was like, what cause like, even at the end of our first story, like, I’m done, I gotta protect my family. I can’t get these last shots. And I was like, but you’ve been to war zones, man, and you’re like, I can’t. So, get it.


Ashley: So I started running a lot and shooting a lot and just looking at the city as a change. So Renee, and I would like you know, swap messages and I think you would go you’d gone back to Australia just at this point. I was at one day in early August. And I saw this, which is a little bit hard to see but it’s a picture of a man on a stoop, having a $10 cup of gelato with a homeless man sleeping next to him in a doorway, and I posted like I didn’t know what to do with all this work, and I got this email from Renee, that said, we have to do something like, oh my god, okay and so started from there. And I mean, Renee, why don’t you talk a little bit about that pitch process? You know, like what you’re looking for in a photographer and what you’re looking for when somebody proposes a story.


Renee: Yeah, I mean, this obviously was a very unique, extremely unique story. Generally, what I would look for is something that’s a bit unexpected, somebody who’s obviously very driven, who’s done a lot of research on the topic who’s just willing to go above and beyond and someone who is actually doing photojournalism. So they’re actually doing the research going out there interviewing, writing, you know, sources, like they’re actually doing the things out in the field, which is essentially what a photojournalist is. And I think with this, from its inception, when we were together in March, to when I saw your, you know, kept following you and saw your Instagram post thereafter. I knew from my end that it was something I really want to ask what I really wanted to work on with somebody and you just fortuitously came into it at like a very good time, because I had been working on COVID stories from out of Asia, because my beat is International Business desk. So I had already started from January through March, working on all these stories, and some of my colleagues on the desk, I don’t think they’re quite knew its severity because I was like, guys, there’s this thing going on, like, in Asia, and I’m assigning all these stories all the time, like, this is kind of big, and I don’t think any of us obviously knew. And as soon as you know that week or two before they sent us home, and you had come in, and that’s why when we sat down and you were like, oh, we need to do something, I was like, if we can, you know have the economy angle, we need to jump on this because this is like really going to be big and going to be a serious thing. And we just wanna hit the button once like, everything gets shoved down, which is exactly what happened. And we were, like you had been out shooting so much already. So by the time that the story had developed so quickly, in New York City, we just hit publish. And I think the same thing, because once you built up the courage to get back out and start shooting again, and I was just seeing your stuff, and I thought this is.. this guy’s like documenting history every day. And we need to, we need to give it a platform because I didn’t see anyone else doing it like you were. And as soon as I saw it, I just thought I need to go to the higher ups and try and get.


Ashley: But then we have to write the pitch, we have to package it into the business section. And I think I think there’s a misconception that I’ve learned that I already knew, but I’ll have learned intimately now with you. That there’s this misconception with business that it has to be like, Oh, I don’t mean this as a diss. Or maybe I do. I don’t know, it doesn’t have to be a Wall Street Journal story with like, men in suits and like pictures of Wall Street. It can be a very human story it can be a story that would fit in a different section of the newspaper, but it has to have a business angle. So when you package these things, you’ll finding, you know, a human, a human way of telling a story. But you’re structuring it into a business section, right? So we’re looking at, in this case, I’m going to share my screen here. And I want to show the initial okay, can you see? That should be working. So this is the initial pitch. So a few days after Renee wrote to me, I’m sorry, I’m just gonna change this. So it’s wait for the spacebar. That so a few days after Renee wrote I put together a pitch. And Renee then shared it with the seniors, the seniors, I mean, her bosses. So we call it the point of rupture, or breaking stress, like just working titles. And it was just a I don’t know, what is that? 200 words, 250 words pitch, looking at how the economy had changed and the different elements of the economy, and what we might be expecting, but to go with that. And I think when I mentioned this, like this is really important that I had already been out shooting a little bit for this. So you know, for photo editors, and for photographers, we have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to get. Like, Renee, you already knew from looking at Instagram, a feeling of what we were going to get except not everybody in the newspaper gets that. So like when you present something to your bosses. It’s not as easy as when I present something to you. So having a little bit of work to show helps, right?


Renee: Yeah, yeah, it was really helpful this time because for the first one, even that was a bit of a hard sell when we went back and I said to him, yeah, we want to do this story. And I don’t know, I can’t speak to other desks in the department, but some of them are a bit easier to like, get something over the line. And then biz, which they want, you know, a bit of context, crunchy numbers, texture, heavy stuff, like it’s got to have depth, and to make it a business story, which really many things can be a business story, like money in the economy, and all that makes the world around and everything could be painted with that, that brush. But this when we went back the second time, it really helped to have some of the things I said, you know, this is what Ashley is doing now going off of our first one. And like we really, it would be amazing if we could invest in this and actually give them the time to bring this to something bigger. And for us to to make it a, you know, put on our platform. But having just a few of these with your pitch helped them see it. I think it was very important.


Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So we started working in August and then this weekend, we ran last week, this weekend, we had the front page of the Sunday paper, that one. And then we had this, which is a first and probably a last but that’s good by me. Special section in the newspaper, which was in yesterday’s paper. And it’s 40 pages of photographs. It feels like a book, you know, like, it’s just, it’s a photo essay, which is our section in the paper. I’ve never been so proud of having anything in the newspaper. Yesterday, I was a little bit overwhelmed, to be honest. So I’m going to go through now, some of the pictures. Oh, I wanted to say, by the way to everybody who was listening, should you have any questions, please just click the Q&A on the right hand side of the Skype and you can put questions in there. And Renee and I will come to them once we have exhausted ourselves from our stories. Okay, so, Renee, you just tell me when if you want me to stop on a certain picture. But um, I want to, like the notes that we needed to hit to make sure that this remained an economy story, were the main points of changes in New York as far as economy went, and also things that have led to the current recession that we are in, so looking at, you know, how New York City normally would take in $60 billion a year in tourism and there’s no tourists. Looking at hundreds of 1000s of jobs that have been lost. I mean, I think the main thread that we were looking at, which is the main the main visual element of how New York has changed is how inequality is now absolutely visualized on the street. Whereas prior to this, it’s been pretty well hidden, you know, you you could ride you can ride in a Rolls Royce from the Upper East Side to Per Se, which is a Michelin starred restaurant, and you could have dinner and then ride home. Now you’re doing all of this stuff on the street side by side with other New Yorkers. So this is just a few of the like, we’ve only got I think about 20 pictures in here from the essay which the final edit online I think had 58 images in it, which is again, a first to me in this newspaper, or any any outlet for that matter. Like, I’ve I’ve seen books with less pictures in it. So we would choose these, we would choose these particular.. we looked at tourism, we looked at inequality, what else do we have in there? Retail industry, employment or unemployment, and we would shoot and sort of, sort things as as we were moving through the essays, slowly sort things into these boxes. But then we just shoot as well and look for these nuances that that made that represented the city as it was feeling, you know, like this, to me great photography is how it feels, not how it looks. And so there was these weird things that would happen like this. This is a photograph from three blocks away, and it was one night where I woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a whole bunch of people running up the street outside my house. I remember, I live on the lower east side and they’re all screaming fire and wearing their pajamas. So I put on what’s it called? Like, not overalls, like a onesie? Yeah, overalls, and grabbed a camera ran outside and the firefighters thought I was a super, I guess so they let me climb up on top of this burning building with him. And I made this photograph of them looking at the fire. In front of them, it was a massive fire two buildings burned down with the with Midtown, New York in the background and this images like this, that to me is like how the city has felt, you know, like, the city is by no means dead. A version of the city died, that’s for sure but the city is alive. You know, there’s a lot of energy, there’s still millions of people here but it’s been devastated. So images like this, where you do have these landscapes of the city that represents a bigger picture, which is one of the things we’ve been looking for throughout you know.


Ashley: I think this was one of our key images. And again, make most of this stuff you can’t plan for you know that this isn’t a, you can plan for some of it like you can plan to go to the FreshDirect warehouse and photograph, you know, the essential workers there who are putting together food packages to send out to New Yorkers after the order and like literally keeping people alive. By keeping them out of supermarkets keeping then at home. But then this stuff like this, where we’re looking at inequality, and we’re looking at a place called Raul’s in Soho, and this is brunch. Raul’s serves like, it’s a, it’s a fancy restaurant in Soho. But right next to it, there’s a man going through trash looking for food. So sometimes a lot of this story, it’s just a question of, you make a plan I will talk to and I’ll say like, I’m going to look at tourism, or I’m going to look at this, I’m going to like I want to focus like here, the other points, we would have these huge documents like these plans, we’d be adding ideas to it. And I’d be like knocking out the ideas and trying this. And that failed and that this works. And like it’s a constant collaborative process. And these lists that we’re making of ideas, like, sometimes I have terrible ideas, sometimes Renee has an amazing idea, and we bounce off one idea into another thing, and then it turns into this. And then we get a picture like this. I’m like walking through Soho looking for outdoor dining images but it turns into the lead picture for inequality. So it’s a question of being out there, but being very conscious of what you’re doing and I think when you’re working on an essay is big. And it must feel the same way for you Renee, on your side, it feels like making a movie. You know, like, there’s so many notes that we need to hit, there’s so many points that we need to make. And it’s this story that’s huge. I mean, it’s a story of a city, it’s a story of a pandemic. So, like even running, you know, like this is a day I was out running and I couldn’t find a way to represent the actual economy. And I went to Wall Street, I don’t know how many times like trying and trying with those never anybody that it was just empty all the time. And so this was just like a morning run and I got really lucky. It’s outside the stock exchange, this this moment where it looks like everybody’s frozen in time, which is also how New York City has felt for for many months. Crime is another big part of what has changed, which is obviously a factor that goes into the economy. So this is one of the pictures and I remember Ashwin saying actually one of the editors was saying early on, he’s like, I’m really excited to work on this story with you two. It’s gonna be a shame to lose these pictures that don’t that may not have the place. And this is one of the ones that he mentioned but again, it’s the lead picture of crime, because crime is a big factor in economy, you know, like if you look at a place like the garment district in midtown Manhattan the garment district is moving. And that’s partially because of a massive uptick in crime that after the hotels have been repurposed as housing for people coming out of Rikers. This is a picture of a man who overdosed on a bench on Allen Street. And this is this was in the crime section and that is not to say, and I think it’s easy to misinterpret something like this. An overdose by itself is not necessarily a crime. That is true. However, this is a crime scene when police officers find a dead body on the street in the morning, which is what’s happening here is instantly a crime scene which it needs to be investigated. So, you know, that also feeds into a bigger picture that we were trying to address in this story, which is city services. So New York with far less funding than it’s had in in many, many years, is cutting budgets, whether that is whether that is sanitation or whether that is police. It’s making it more difficult for the economy to survive and for New Yorkers to get by.


Ashley: This was a fun night. So this is actually great big on the screen, because you can see some of the details. So this is a graffiti artist on Broadway in Williamsburg and when I was with these two guys, they put a ladder up on top of this shop. So this is on the second level. And they climbed up in front of if you can look in the middle of the picture, there’s a police video camera box, right in front of the police box. And that has climbed up on that ladder and started painting. That’s like you guys, are you guys crazy? Like you’re, it’s right in front of the police station and the police station is a block away. And they literally said nobody cares. And they were absolutely right. Like what people are getting away with in New York right now and over the last year is remarkable. So this was when the story ran initially online last week, there was a slideshow of images on the front page of the of the newyorktimes.com. Which was pretty amazing, as well. So this is one of the pictures that I tried, I don’t know, I think it’s pretty clearly influenced by some of the 1930s depression pictures but this is a this is a scene from Time Square.


Ashley: This picture may not be an award winning image, but I am so proud of this picture. This is people selling counterfeit luxury items on Canal Street. So normally these men and some women who sell this stuff, they’ll have it on blankets, and they’ll have a few bags or they’ll have like a little book that they show you and you have to go to a back alley and then you buy this like Louis Vuitton bag, whatever fake Louis Vuitton bag. Now, it’s just on the street, like if the police came if there was actually an anti-counterfeit squad. And if they came along, all of the guys would grab the blankets and run. Now as long as they don’t set up a table, you can do anything you want. So you can see this just like the whole street is now lined with counterfeit good sellers and you can see that there’s a cop car in the background doing nothing. In fact, the counterfeit seller is more concerned about what the other guys are selling than the cops behind him. Whereas, you know, six months ago, this guy would have been half a mile away in an alley hiding from the police. Actually, right before we ran the story, I was telling Renee, this, I saw a counterfeit bag seller outside a real Louis Vuitton on 57th Street I was like this, this thing is getting even more brazen than ever. This is a car accident up on the Upper East Side with a woman and a poodle looking at the police truck trying to drag the car to the intersection.


This is the lobby, so most of the hotels in New York have either been repurposed as homeless shelters or as housing for people who had to leave Rikers Island due to COVID dangers out there. Rikers Island is a jail in New York, prison, actually sorry, and so then a lot of luxury hotels actually closed down. So this is the Conrad hotel in Midtown. And it was a sculpture in the lobby that I photographed one day, and it was like this is this is the funny one, Renee, like, I filed this and I didn’t really see it. I was like, okay, it’s cool. And then you were like, oh my god, you got it. Ah, so again, like that collaboration, right? Like sometimes I would file stuff and I wouldn’t see it and Renee very much would. So this is in meatpacking district and like as places started to reopen with outdoor dining. And Renee like we both did research and discussed at length subjects but do you want to talk a little bit about like, the importance of being able to be able to work together on production of this stuff but also being able to do it yourself? Like knowing that the editors are other people to work with.


Renee: Yeah, I mean, I feel like with this and with working with you, you know we already had good synergy from our first project. And we sort of laid out a bit of a plan of what, what we wanted to achieve. But I think the beauty of this and working with photographers like yourself, you know, you need to be let free to go and make the images, find the images, immerse yourself be the eyes and ears on the ground and have that freedom. And I, I was essentially relying on you for that because I mean, I’m sitting here in Australia, and I wasn’t ready or willing to finish this project, unless I felt like I was there in that moment in that spot, walking down that street, feeling that thing. And I feel like after, you know, each iteration, every time you go back out and shot more, and we research more, and we thought more areas and places, and, you know, you were just relentless with your pursuit of the task, and you just kept coming back with more images. And it just blew me away. And I feel like he came back with more and we didn’t edit or I sat with him for a while, or I showed some of them to some of the gang and they were like, well, can he pursue that storyline a bit more, or we might not go that way, we’ll go this way. I feel like we kept refining it as time went on but, you know, each time you went out, you came back with like, crazier stuff, and crazier stuff. And I couldn’t even I couldn’t wrap my head around it. And I live in New York, and I left peak pandemic so I knew what wacky stuff was going on. But I wanted to be able to include images that people around the world who were not in New York City or anywhere with, like this level of pandemic could actually see and realize how, like apocalyptic it was like, it was crazy.


Ashley: Right. Like, I think that’s the thing like us trying to, and that was, that was that was a really interesting thing that we were talking about yesterday, and even even on one of the calls we had. So Renee is obviously in Australia, and I’m here so creating this document for a New Yorker who knows the city, you know, intimately and showing you how this looks like you’re my first audience, right? Like showing you how this looks and you, you know, you’re telling me like you gotta go, like, I don’t care how you feel about Staten Island, you need to go there or, like you need more from the Bronx, or more from here or there. Like, let’s broaden this out a little bit. Even in the edits, you know, like we would be looking at, we’d be looking at certain images and it’d be like a lot of Brooklyn pictures but there wasn’t a picture that like showed a more universal Brooklyn experience let’s say and so we’d like find that picture and add that to the essay. So I think that like going through it and like me being so.. most editors that I work with say like will remind me like not to get lost in the weeds and like your eyes on the bigger picture and this was exactly the opposite. This was like get into the swamp and get lost but I would always have you there as an anchor to pull me back into this. Like okay, like now you’ve you’ve definitely got retail but you’ve screwed up industrial  and industrial production so like get your ask the garment district and would you say that but you’d say like let’s try garment district, let’s try food. Let’s try queens.


Ashley: This is Time Square during rush hour in the morning. I love that one on the homepage. Oh my god, this is crazy. This is one of the historic hotels in Midtown just behind Grand Central Station. Grand Central Terminal and it’s called the Roosevelt Hotel. It’s been there for a long time. It is no longer there. It is there as a building it’s likely to be knocked down or turned into another one of these like toothpick skyscrapers that this is the top floor of the hotel that felt almost exactly like I imagined the shining with Jack Nicholson. There was no guests. There were a few guests left in the hotel, but the hotel shut down two days later forever. And for some reason, the elevators would remain open on the top floor. The chandeliers are out and breaking. You can see like this we had burn marks from those lights being on for so long for so many years in the ceiling. And then they’d be like some of the guest room doors former guest room doors would be open and there’d be like stuff left behind. Like I remember, I mean that’s the other thing with these stories and like I don’t know if other photographers are like this I can only speak for myself but like I would come back after some of these days and I might be freaked out, or I might be emotional about some of this stuff. And so editors that I love working with will back you up on that it’s not just production of the story. It’s not just like, you need more of this or more of that. It’s also like, okay, you’re doing the story for months, and it’s not always the easiest of times. So it’s not, sometimes it’s like, alright, like, I need to listen to this photographer, complain a little bit and feel better, and then he’ll get back out there tomorrow. Or I tell him get a good night’s sleep, you’ll feel better.


Renee: I mean, some of the days, you know, it was just wacky, because some days you’d be texting me and I had just finished, like my 9-10 hour shift. And it was like, 5:00 a.m. And I was delirious, like, my brain was fried, and I was about to crash when I go to bed at 6:00 a.m. And you were like, why? And you just been out shooting and you were like, wanting moral support or wanting to talk like, send me like 10 photos. What do you think of these? What do you think of these and I’m like, the photos were amazing. But my brain cells were fried and I was like, oh my god, but I was like, no, you’re gonna rally, you’re gonna reply to him, and you’re gonna be his person. And like, some days, I was like, what did I just tell him? I’d wake up five hours later. And I’d be like, what did I just tell Ashley? Because what’s he doing now? Like, I everything was a bit out of whack. And then some days would be like, Christmas, or I’d be at the beach, and you’d send me some of the things I’d be editing. And I’d be like, oh, my god, like, he’s like, in the hospital, like, we had to cover the hospital. That was another whole sector that you know.


Ashley: That’s right. That was and that was really important. Yeah, we I forgot about that. Like, we realized, I think we were three months into the essay at that point. And we were looking all these pictures. This is actually they’re written, just for the record, these are real giraffes at the Bronx Zoo. We were at, yeah, we were a few months into the essay. And we realized, we have pictures of people in like these quarantine like these, I forget what you call it. Like there’s white suits with the masks and all that stuff and like you would occasionally see that in the city but we hadn’t actually approached COVID-19 head on. And even though we know that’s what the essay is about, we need at least an image we needed to represent it in the story. Like, this is the heart of the story. The reason all of this is happening is people are sick and there’s a pandemic. So we went, we arranged access to Mount Sinai in Brooklyn and I spent a couple of days in the ICU there and in the ER. And that was one of the photographs that appeared in the story. But you know, then I had to quarantine for four days after that, that and I think I texted you a lot during that time, I had to be like stuck in my apartment isolated, which was pretty weird. This was a city, this is a one of the city service images and it was city testing for an COVID-19. And so one of the things that I like about how we work on these things is you have these, we all have sources, right? We call them we call them sources. So it’s people that you can call and get contacts or network and try to get access to certain elements of things that are happening on the story that you’re working on. And this was a wonderful example of that, like, I am not just a photographer. I’m also an archer. I’m a father. I’m a runner. So on my Instagram, I have 1000s of people, many of whom live in New York or know people who live in New York. So occasionally I’ll say, does anybody know anyone’s working with the city during COVID testing? Or like a friend? Another runner wrote to me and said, you know, the Olga, this a runner friend of mine is a nurse, and she’s an Olympic runner, and an olympic qualified 800 meter runner, and she’s a nurse working on the front line. Okay. I’m going to visit Olga. So here’s Olga in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. And then I saw her the next week actually winning a race at Icahn Stadium, which is pretty cool so like, but falling back on that network. Like I can’t photograph a friend moving out of their house, but I can post on Instagram and say, do you know anybody leaving the city? And that was a dicey one like and we did post that. I got so many. It was amazing. The response I have never had so many DMS and that’s one of the that was one of the sort of indicators that we weren’t sure how many people were leaving. We heard rumors from City Hall about percentages of how many New Yorkers it actually left. Of course, the New York Times studied cellphone data, which looked at like Soho, the upper Eastside, the West Village, 40% of residents left. This is one of our earlier images. This is a park over on the East River and the city had cut the budgets for gardeners so they brought in goats to weed, which were remarkably effective. And I would definitely love to lobby for more goats in the city post pandemic. It was so much fun. Subways were largely empty Manhattan, and this is another story in from another day. But in the middle of the city, the subways were mostly empty and this is a Bronx bound subway so but the thing is, once you actually get out to the, to the outer boroughs, you know, to like the end of the lines, whether you are in East New York, whether you are in the Bronx, or way up at, in Corona, Queens, the further you would get out, the busier the subways were. So the subways closed from midnight to 5:00 a.m. every night just for disinfecting and sanitation. But the people that were taking the subways away from, were the people who most needed them. And the essential workers who are keeping like the backbone of New York City, the spine, the people who actually keep the city running. So this was an example of what it looks like in Manhattan. But then like we were I was out photographing daily. That’s so weird, I say, we were out shooting because it feels like that, but you were in Australia, but we were out shooting in the Bronx, day laborers. And I remember taking the first train up there at 5:00 a.m. and it was packed. I was like, what on earth is going on? And I realized like, these are people who need to take the subway.


Ashley: This was an image outside fashion week, we covered fashion week as part of the industrial production because New York City is very much a center of fashion in in the world. And a lot of the work a lot of the work, a lot of the garments are actually produced here. So like in the garment district in midtown Manhattan near the near the Times office, you know, Calvin Klein will be upstairs and he will have an idea and he’ll walk downstairs to like to a textile shop. He’ll check a bunch of textiles by a bolt and then take it to a different factory and have it made into some sort of dress or a suit or whatever and that’s that’s been changing. So fashion week was another big change. Usually this is something that brings in 1000s and 1000s of people but there was one catwalk way in which the models didn’t work. They stayed in place six feet apart, and people were ferried around on timed sort of tours. This we have catwalk outside. So this was this was outside, like on the red carpet, and was a woman who turned up wearing a well it’s called a covidisor, but it’s basically a fishbowl with an N95s in it. Which I was apprehensive for us to run initially, but then I kept seeing people around the city wearing these and I was like, okay, it’s not that crazy. It turns out, I still think it’s crazy but..


Renee: I mean, I was extremely drawn to this image because of it’s.. bizarre. It’s so good.


Ashley: She’s so so natural, right?


Renee: She’s so natural, but like no one in Australia would be doing that. Even if we were in a pandemic. It’s just such a, it was just such an obscure, quirky, wacky, offbeat image that had to go in.


Ashley: This was a man who recently lost his job as a security guard and he was washing. He was washing, having a bath. He said, in under the gaze of Zeus himself in the fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. So this is Mount Sinai. This is a man who had a life threatening case of COVID. He’s on a ventilator. This was actually this is a pretty amazing place to work. I wish that I had spent more time in hospitals last year but I didn’t. Well, the administration changed the the laws so that it actually made it very difficult for for photographers to spend time inside hospitals. It’s not to say there’s no images but it made making those images a lot harder. This is one of my favorites. It’s a picture of a Staten Island Ferry. She’s an essential worker on her way home after a shift. And again, it’s one of these more nuanced images that doesn’t feed directly into inequality or doesn’t feed into tourism but it is a much bigger statement, you know, a statement that I think wraps up a lot of what we’re trying to say with all of these different sections and all these different images. So Renee, and your colleagues edited these different sections of images that we had, but then there was the top section, and then, like the opening and the closing. So there was the, I think, if you like, Renee, I think, if you wanted to chat a little bit about the, the process of the production of the essay is always fascinating to me.


Renee: Hmm, yeah, I mean, there was no sort of set, oh, this is a we’re doing a big, interactive six month project. Here’s the template. Let’s open that up. And this is how we do it at the New York Times, it was none of that. It was like, I chat to my bosses, like photo bosses and business desk bosses, and we jump on calls with Ashley and then they’d sort of say, like, let’s sort of get the nuts and bolts, let’s sort of figure out like, what point we want to hit what we want to say, then let’s get it into Google Doc, let’s get our thoughts down. And then Renee go off, like for weeks and weeks, and look at like hundreds and hundreds of images, I would take the laptop with me everywhere to the beach to anywhere, and think about, they’re looking through the images and on the phone wherever I could, and just going back to them in my mind. But then back to this Google Doc to think well, what’s important, what do we want to say like, we can’t have everything and you don’t want it to be too diluted, but then you kind of don’t want to go, you know, it needs to be structured. So then I’d get my thoughts down to paper. But then there were just so many layers and levels of, we’d get on calls all together, and then a few you know, we had our core team, and then they’d all we’d discuss and bounce ideas and throw a few thoughts in. And then it sort of slowly started to expand a little bit as we got a designer on board, and then you know, print designer with Digital Designer, then, you know, Nelson’s reporting, and it sort of grew. And everyone was throwing their thoughts in it kind of like not snowballed, but it it evolves to what it is now.


Ashley: There was a day that you and I were in a call, there was so amazing, like, because everybody brought something to it. That was like when Nelson started reporting and what he’s not writing and dropping the text in, it was really moving. And it took these different form. And then Knock would look at the images and say like, have you thought about doing this and like stuff that we hadn’t even considered, you know, like Fashion Week was idea. And it was brilliant, it was such a good idea. So everybody would bring like, all these different collaborators brings something else to it but I remember, there was a day where you me and Knock had been going through and like wrangling this edit. And there are moments that I was really upset and like you would say like Ash, you looked at these pictures, and you were supposed to cut a bunch of them out and instead you added 10, what are you doing to me? And we we wouldn’t fight of course, but we were discuss, if we have to lose one, what is it and like there was there was a hard part of it. And we got to a point where we were close to a final edit and it was almost there. And then Meghan Looram, who’s the director of photography at the times, came onto one of the calls and she moved a couple of pictures around and somehow, like to me that was just a I’ll never forget the day because something just snapped into place. Like she hadn’t seen the edits that we’d been making up until that point and she moved these pictures around some ideas were in there and it was just it the whole jigsaw sort of fell into place and we saw this picture. And I remember you sent me the you sent me a layout that night from from Rebecca Lieberman, the designer, and you said okay, have a look at this and send any critiques or ideas. And so I opened, it was late at night, I was in bed, I opened the link and I was like started taking notes of like, oh, we should do this. Maybe we thought about this. And I was like wait, the text is here, this jigsaw there is now in place is here. I remember this lay in bed crying. I was like this is, there’s a point at which I don’t like the work that I’m doing when I’m producing it. I don’t like the work that I’ve done once it’s published, but there’s a point in the middle where it’s something that I’m proud of. And that night I was like, what have we made? It was magic. You know, it was like to me that was that day was amazing. Like it was one of the greatest examples of how it works when we collaborate.


Renee: Yeah, and I have to say to that point. We normally, I mean, I can’t speak for every other photo editor or desk, but we wouldn’t normally have a photographer so heavily involved with with the edit. And we would normally do a lot of that ourselves, and maybe just maybe show it to you. But generally, for 90% of the editing process, you know, photographers submit photos, we editors go through them, bouncing around with a few other colleagues and publish the work. But, you know, I think you are vital to this process and we absolutely needed your insight, because we could have sat there on and just chop, chop, chop, and like, ditch half of these and be like, well, what’s that? Where’s this? And what’s this? And, you know, and we’re going off, like, what’s the strong image? What do we feel but then you gave so much context to some of these images, and you did fight for some of them. And you put a good case for that. We were like, oh, yeah, right, like, this guy’s right, this image has to stay in. And I think you knew when to, when to like, when to dislike, admit defeat that some of them were going to be cut and and pick your battles, and some of them you fought for. And some of them I fought for, like, you know, that time that we had to get it down from 70 or 80 to 50, and we were terrible at that. And then you added ten more in and I was like, what? And then I took them out and then we presented it to everybody else. And they’re like, guys don’t need to lose another 15 photos. And we were like, oh, yeah, I guess we just switched, we just like substituted them. So we were written with that. But it was a bit indulgent. Like I just loved so many that I had to leave it come back to it. That’s what was helpful when Meghan Looram came on and had a look, because she wasn’t part of it thick in the weeds for months and months. And she could just come in and look at things and it was super helpful to have her knock part of that process.


Ashley: Yeah, totally, totally. And then it should be said, like we we made well over 50,000 raw images for this. The final edit that poor Renee had to look at was like actual filed images that we put into the system at the New York Times was 800 pictures. Like, okay, normal assignment, if Renee calls me and says, like, go into Wall Street and take some pictures because like the the jobs reports coming out, I’ll file what five, maybe six. So 800 finals on one story, I’ve done books with less finals than that.


Renee: I mean, and they were your finals, they weren’t even like the outtakes that you were sending hundreds and hundreds of like hundreds. And then we had to divide them up, or at least, you know, we had to divide them into like sections of just to make sense of what speaks to what theme. And that in itself took a while and then you have ones that dropped off and then we bring the outtakes back in, we back up. But this one was so strong, but no, and even up until like the day before one or two that we thought we’re gonna stay in, they left.


Ashley: At that point, I was resigned as long as we kept the opening and closing. I was okay. Oh, which we should.. This was a like, we talked about these two images a lot so that the final two images in the online or in the in the essay, we bounced between this, which is an image of the Matisse painting of the dance at MoMA. And this is in the days that in the days immediately following the museum’s reopening. So it was timed entry there were very few people actually going through it. And you know, the the cultural, the cultural art scene in New York is one of the most important parts of the city’s existence. I mean, it’s what it’s where the city’s energy comes from. Of course, it’s because it’s an economic center, and it’s a fashion center. But the creative and cultural institutions of the city are one of the things that keeps this place anchored. So MoMA was, I think, a really important place to actually photograph and I waited in this room for about half an hour. Until a small group came through, and this boy stayed on this chair in front of this painting, and it was it was an image that like shows what we had temporarily lost, but also the isolation that we were feeling. I love it. I think it’s so representative of a much larger feeling that we have had as New Yorkers and not just New Yorkers, but the world. And that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to look at, and this is not just a New York story, this is a global pandemic. So as far as like large metropolises, I don’t think that these pictures would be that different. It’d be different people in different backgrounds, sure, but I think the feeling would be quite similar in a lot of cities in the world. So this, this was the second last picture, but it kept jumping into the last picture because this was the last image that we ended up using. And this is a picture that I made of, he’s actually an opera singer, Dominican American opera singer called Nicholas Lagasse. And this was a day on the Brooklyn Bridge and for anybody who’s not in New York, or even New Yorkers, who are on this call, the Brooklyn Bridge is usually packed with tourists. So as a runner, or as a cyclist, or even, like, dude, walking over to Brooklyn, I totally avoid the Brooklyn Bridge, because there’s so many tourists, it’s a nightmare. But through the pandemic, I’ve been over this bridge so many times, and many, many times, it’s just been me, you know, for a mile from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and then a mile back, I will not see another soul, there’s been days that there’s been no cars underneath, you know, the pedestrian walkway. And it’s a trip like it’s a totally different world. And this is one of the days that I was riding back from Brooklyn after shooting, and the bridge was totally empty and I came to the second pylon on the Manhattan side. As I turned into it, I saw these two dancing. And I, like, pulled my bike to a stop and started taking photographs and then I you know, I took Nicholas’s name and his partner’s name and his number.  I always take people’s names, number and email. And, you know, asked them if I could take more pictures, and it was this moment where it seemed like there was no pandemic. And it seemed like, there was nothing else in the world. It was just these two people together, and I hadn’t seen that, in so many months. This intimacy and this fabled dance no matter what. So I called him later, I think I came back that night, Renee, that was like, this is one of the nights because when I made this picture, I knew that this was the last picture in the image in the essay, I didn’t, I was like, I’m still got months to shoot this, but this is it. This to me, is it this is these are the people who will bring New York City back, like the city is not dead.


Renee: So, were you relieved when it was in my edit?


Ashley: So really, so relieved. But I think like that night, I got off, because I called Nicholas and interviewed him later on once he had finished dancing, and I said, what were you doing? He said, Well, I haven’t done. He said, as a like, as a creative. I often I can’t express very well how I feel with words. But I can express it in dance, and I’ve always danced to see how does he how I’m responding to things around me. And he said that, um, he, god it’s hot, it’s crazy. It’s like still emotional. It’s funny. He said he hadn’t danced since March, when lockdown started. And this was the first time I was like, wow, it’s it’s an amazing story. And I was writing the caption, I think it was texting you and I sent you this picture. I was so excited. When I told you the caption, I think you wrote back like, so how did it feel? I was like, Oh, my god. I had to call him back. I was like, so how did it feel? He was like it felt free. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I feel like so looking at these two images, like this picture is very much a period. It’s, it is the end. And there’s, there’s no question. There’s no future, necessarily in this image, it is a moment in time. Whereas this is an image that represents a potential future. It represents hope, which people have and it represents a resilience that New Yorkers have shown. Huge amount of people around the world have shown huge, huge amounts of..


Renee: and I mean, we were tossing out for a long time on which one of those two to end on.


Ashley: Yeah, I know. It was hard. And I was always lobbying for this except it was going back and forward. And like then we would have different people weigh in like some people felt it was really sad image, and then others felt like it wasn’t sad. It was so interesting how all these different people how they responded to it, you know? It’s it’s hard. It’s not an easy essay, right? Like it’s it is definitely a sad essay. But it’s like like we wrote in this piece in The Times insider. You know, it’s a it’s a requiem for a city, a version of the city that died but it is also a love letter to a city that is that is going to bounce back. It’s bounced back through other crises, and we’ll bounce back from this one. I know we should get to Q&A. But let’s, another big part of what we do is I mean, for both Renee and I ended, I think the paper, right? I mean, you can speak to that better than I can, but it’s amplifying the story. Once we do it, it’s not just a question of publishing and then going and drinking coffee all day and forgetting it like you don’t, these stories don’t disappear behind you, you have to do everything you possibly can in order to get it seen by the widest amount of people. So one of the things that we did was write a Times Insider, which is where we explain the process of making these, the making this essay, and why. So that is an additional layer that can be publicized. We have been doing television interviews and radio interviews, to get more viewers like we get millions of people obviously, on the Times website and with subscribers, sorry, in print readers, but television or radio is obviously going to get a whole different demographic of people. So trying to sort of spread the story to make sure that you know, our job as communicators, right, we’re doing this, we have a point, we want people to see it. So we have different people that we have our networks, we have friends like Janie, we have publicists at the times, and then we get it out as far and wide as we possibly can so the job is certainly doesn’t stop once it’s published.


Renee: And the social team.


Ashley: Oh, my god, the social team are amazing. Yes.


Renee: And your stories, you going out doing their stories. I mean, that really gave it a lot of flavor and took us right there to the streets like you were that you were there. I was there. You had you not done that. You know? Yeah, it’s important. It all plays into it.


Ashley: Yeah. Okay, so do we miss anything, Renee? Or? Should we go to questions?


Renee: Let’s go to questions that will cover whatever we missed. Okay.


Ashley: All right. So Sean Pridgen. Hi, Sean. He says, Please tell me you’re doing a book with a larger selection. Yes, we’re doing a book and Renee will be involved in that. That’s happening. Michelle asks, greetings from Barcelona in reference to the photo selection. How do you go about that? Actually, did you submit the final selection at the end of the six months? Or did you periodically meet every couple of weeks a month, and strategize, selecting photos together? Renee?


Renee: We basically, we started off maybe every few weeks, but actually not we were actually was my new husband, we were texting all the time, every day, every night, all through the day and night. And I saw him more than most people, but he was on the other side of the world. And then in the last few weeks, we were meeting consistently every day with a broader team of maybe like six or seven on Zoom calls and massaging it and coming back and going back and going back. And when I was meant to be sleeping, I was doing this and it was like, huge, huge effort towards the end. But even at the end, Ashley was like, I’ll just go out and get one more photo, shall I just shoot anything else? It was nonstop.


Ashley: Like three days before production. We were like, oh my god, maybe I should go get the vaccination centers. Like, there’s no way like we were all over it, nonstop. Shady wants to know how many of these images are taken while running? I don’t know. Maybe 30 or 40% a lot but I run a lot. You know, you see a lot when you run and there’s certain places that I would go back to like I would see something while I was running or take a couple of pictures then I would go back and spend a few hours there. Especially when you need to develop relationships with people. Why in black and white? I would love to know why you accepted it in black and white, Renee. But I will say I shot it in black and white because the city is really beautiful and New Yorkers even in a pandemic are very stylish and cool and a lot of these situations are shot at times of day in which the light is quite beautiful. Like if you think of that time square image, which is very dark. All of those billboards, reds and blues and yellows and the sky is gray and the steam coming out from the from the from the street is going to be backlit with a green and it’s amazing. It’s stunning. It’s a postcard. This wasn’t a series of Postcards. This was a series of like how Time Square felt that morning, not how it looked and black and white gave us an opportunity or gave me an opportunity at least To represent the city, as it was feeling, versus as it was looking, I mean, like, imagine the picture of the giraffes at the Bronx Zoo, in color. It’s a very different image. That said, I don’t think we ever talked about color and black and white, Renee.


Renee: We didn’t, um, I think I had, I had discussed it with, with some of my editors and managers, but I will be honest, I wanted to see it in color, and I wanted you to file in color. I was curious, because we don’t see a lot of your stuff in color and when you did file for the first story in color, I was like really drawn to them. However, you know, after we thought about it, and we chatted to a couple of the others, they were like, oh, no, this, this is a black and white essay. And I just thought back to the old photography, and, you know, maybe some people might say, it’s a bit art, but indulgent bit, whatever. But like, honestly, this would not I don’t, I personally don’t think would have had the same impact or feel or heaviness, as it does, I don’t think as with the black and white images, it almost like takes away like the.. like removing the color, you’re just like looking at the scene and you’re like, holy shit like this is bad. This is crazy.


Ashley: All the way, like the picture of the man selling the counterfeit goods on Canal Street like that’s, that would be wild colors. And you would never like you would never look at the guy’s expression. And the guy’s expression looking off to the side leads you immediately to the police car. And then that draws you down to the the two kids in the stroller like that in black and white works. And you see all of the reactions and the feelings of people in it whereas I lose it, I don’t see it as quickly, let’s say in color. But I definitely felt like a, I definitely felt like you gave me a pass on this one to do it in black and white. Maybe I never asked because I didn’t want the color question to even come into it but so thank you. Yeah, totally. New York city of contrasts on a normal day. How do you think living through and making photographs during the pandemic has impacted you and will this surreal time influence your work moving forward? Very much will it will influence my work going forward. And how do I think living through and making photographs has impacted you? So it’s the same answer, actually, to both of those questions, which is really weird. And I didn’t expect this to happen. I’ve lived here for 17-18 years since 2003. Yeah, and I’ve always had a sort of love hate relationship with the city. It’s, I mean, it’s crazy and it’s wonderful and it’s creative. And it’s it’s rich, and it’s poor. And it’s like all of these social structures, and systems that we have in place to try to help the vulnerable have always been so tenuous. And that’s one of the things that we’ve seen broken by the pandemic. This year, you know, like, I’ve never spent a whole year in the same place since I was an adult since I was an 18 year old, like I’ve always, you know, like, my son lives here in New York, and I’ve lived here for a long time, but I’ve always spent at least half of my time away, or up to half my time, let’s say. And so, like Ron Haviv, my friend at the agency, always, he used to say to me, a New York’s a great place if you can get out. And he’s born and raised New Yorker, and to me that always clicked it always made sense. Like I always love coming back to New York but this year, being stuck here and and really investing in the city as a photographer, as a storyteller. I fell in love with it. Like I fell head over heels in love with the city and I didn’t get this before. You know, I think that what I’m seeing or what I’m experiencing on the streets is these micro-communities of people that I didn’t realize I could rely on. Now they exist and you see this in images, you know, like these is small communities of people relying on each other and that’s a really beautiful thing. And this, while our vulnerabilities have been exposed by the pandemic, so have our strengths. So moving forward, you know, my I’m not leaving. Renee is coming back you know, this, these communities that exists I mean, look, I fell in love with the city, I didn’t think it was gonna happen. Here we are.


Renee: And you can see that in the images. And I could feel that every single day that you must set up the guts and the energy and the courage to go out nonstop. And I could feel it every day. I mean, this was a guy who was like, obsessed with the thing. And it was just like, here are some more, here are some more and I thought, like, we’ve got thousands, there’s no more this guy could actually capture but then everyday, but he’s just I just uploaded just like like another 50. Just if you want to look at them, it’s just like another 100 here and it’s Christmas. And it’s like New Year’s Day on like, when’s the project finishing have we have we captured everything now I feel like we hit everything but then you just kept making more pictures because more things were happening. And we we needed, we needed that, like you just didn’t stop. And I think granted like we, The New York Times, I don’t think we usually do sort of six to eight, ten month long term projects, or when we do that they’re few and far between, it’s like it’s a big heave, it’s a lot of investment, you know, it, there’s a lot of buy in. And we’ve sort of got to be sure that it’s, it’s going to make its mark and gonna be worthy of it. And I feel like it goes back to the New York Times as mission of like seeking the truth and helping people understand the world. These images do that and that’s why I love it so much. Because, you know, I’m studying right now on the side and in my course, we’re speaking a lot about values and missions and, all these things about companies, and it wasn’t until I started studying, and then you started on this, that I’m like, Wow, this, this is essentially we are fulfilling the role of the journalism and your storytelling was doing that. I mean, we curated it and finessed it, but like you were out there doing, you were bringing it together.


Ashley: Because there’s so many times that I’m proud to work for the paper. And this is definitely one of the big ones. Seeing the investment like this is it. Like I said, I’m never gonna have a section like this in my life. I’ve never had one before. It’s such a major, major investment of people and short, I don’t even know what the money side of it like, the just the teams like, you sent me screenshots of so many people on these meetings, I was like, oh, my god, what is going on? It’s wild. So that gave me a lot of hope. Like I feel very much the journalism as a public service, above all. And this to me was an example of that, like, the paper getting behind something that’s big was beyond my wildest dreams. Yeah. How do I find the scenes and situations that I photographed? And how do you research project theme? Okay, so I think we explained how I find the scenes, but I’m researching the project theme is actually really important. Like we, Renee, and I would obviously do research, and we would share articles and like look at, like you start you start broad and then you like, get more specific as you go in the research. But looking at, like, we started looking at recession indicators, and Renee is better at this than I am because she’s special. Like she’s an expert in business and in photography, I’m not an expert in business, I don’t understand money at all. So I would look at like broad indicators and then like, we would send an email to Nelson, the reporter, and to Ashwin the editor and say, okay, here are the rest of the recession indicators that we’ve identified. Here are the examples of them that I think we found in New York. What are we missing? You like, let’s talk to, let’s bring in actual experts. And if I wasn’t working on this story with the Times, I would have gone to other reporters or academics who could have advised me to make sure that I wasn’t screwing it up. I photograph on my phone and my Fuji camera, a lot on my phone, actually. You’d be amazed which, which ones or which on these. I do engage with my street subjects and talk to them. Sometimes, not always, sometimes they want to sort of chase me off a little bit, but not usually but I try to, I’d say 95% of the cases here, I engage with people and I explain who I am, what I’m doing the context of the story. And then when I expect it roughly to be published. So I don’t want, you know that this has been I mean, it’s a part of journalism, you have to you have to explain who you are and what you’re doing. And I think this is actually becoming more important as we move into, you know, a more developed society, people like we need to be transparent. I mean, I was doing that on January 6 at the Capitol, which apparently not everybody was doing I was fine with it, but okay, so how often we editing together? All the time. Can I speak more about how I interacted? I just did. It is it is more complicated during a pandemic, but I was always wearing a mask, I would always keep a distance. So yes, it’s more complicated, except people want to share generally. And so sometimes people would say, like, can I see the picture? First, I’m gonna say, no, you like, we have a policy that we can’t do that. But I can promise you like, I will represent you, as I’ve seen you on the street, and you know, the story, I’m not trying to slam anybody or hurt anybody, I’m trying to represent things as I see them. So if you’re honest, it’s not that much of a struggle, but it is a bit of a struggle behind the mask. And normally, I would like write in a notepad, like my normal strategy would be writing in a notepad, like the name and then I would show the subjects the name and the age and the phone number and the email and any sort of contextual information that I could I would show them that and say, Is this all correct? And then I would text them later on and double check that I couldn’t do this time because then you’re getting you know within a couple of feet of people, so it has to get minimal information and then I could telephone them later and interview them and double check all the spellings. Ballpark ratio of images shot that would that made into the project 10% of images that I failed made it into the project. No, 8% I shoot a determined prior to shooting for black and white, yes.Ash’s process? Okay, we got that. The rule changes for journalists in hospitals. Yvonne, if you Google, if you’re still here, if you Google, “HIPAA laws, H-I-double P-A laws, photography COVID Trump administration.” There’s actually a good story in the paper about how the laws were changed to make it virtually impossible to photograph people suffering from COVID. Yes, there’s a book coming up, I’ll start working on that after a good sleep.


Ashley: It’s interesting how the collaboration with the right people can give life to a project which may otherwise never see the light of day. Is this type of collaboration typical in the trade? I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s pretty special. I wouldn’t say this is typical. I would say this is actually exceptional. It’s it’s rare that you find a work wife or a work husband like this.


Renee: Maybe it’s the Australian thing.


Ashley: It could be the Australian thing, It’s true. It’s true. How often do you look for pictures and locations with a narrative you’d like to convey versus instances where you find a new narrative like Raul’s? I go out with a rough idea, like I’ll say like we’re weak in the tourism section of the body of work. And so I’ll go out no, like, I’ll move into areas that I think represent that but I’m always looking for other images that that are just happening. So it’s a question, it’s a question of being very conscious and very in the moment, everywhere you’re going. Okay, Amin, is asking about a question that does not pertain to this essay in particular, but more to COVID representation in general, I have been wondering about how conscious the decision to try to avoid the ugliest part of the pandemic, which is death, when it comes to photography? It would be great to learn what Ash or Renee think about that, and why, I mean, you should also “Google HIPAA Trump administration photography.” And I think that you will get a better sense of that. I agree with you. That’s been, you know, actually, one of my favorite pictures, this is crazy. One of my favorite, one of the strongest pictures that I’ve seen from New York City during the pandemic is from another runner, who was also a photo editor at the journal, Megan Peterson. She shot a picture and posted it on Instagram, which was un-fucking-believable. It was so powerful and it was a picture that she shot I think she was over the street. It was a cemetery and people were burying a casket, and the whole family was outside the fence of the cemetery watching their loved one get buried. It was such a strong picture. And she, none of us got it. You know, like none of us professional working photographers got it. And I will tell you, not gonna lie. I haven’t admitted this to anybody, but I have run past a lot of cemeteries looking at that picture. I didn’t see it, she got it. So it’s, we’ve tried, we’ve tried, but there’s been active attempts to prevent us from doing that.


Renee: And also, just to add to that question, from from business desk point of view, and in terms of like visuals, we needed to hit all of the notes. But this, this wasn’t, this is a health crisis. But it’s also like an economic crisis. And we had to stay true to what the business desks needs, so sure, Ashley could have put, like, we could have put 12 or 15 images of hospitals. But we also didn’t want to fatigue readers. And we had seen a lot of that this year, out of the New York Times, like a lot, a lot of amazing stuff, like the stuff out of Italy, amazing, phenomenal. You know, we just sometimes just put one hint or two hints to cover that. And, and it wasn’t that we didn’t want to, you know it, of course, this is how it came about. It’s a health crisis but we, you know, how many of these do we need to see in a project like this, because it hits so many other areas of society. And I think we needed to focus on all of those and uncover those and unpack those and include them all in there, as well as the hospital scenes and the deaths.


Ashley: I think you are really on point with that. And I think that was really like I think that’s actually one of the reasons it succeeded as an as a narrative essay because, like, if I was going too deep into, like a certain neighborhood or a certain theme, you would you would literally say like, it’s not a metro story. It’s not a science story. Like I could have spent a month at the ICU at Mount Sinai photographing there, but two days was enough, especially given that you have to isolate for days afterwards. So I think, I think with any essay, and this answers some of the other questions that are there, like with any photo essay, going back to the first day, and then like going up forward from there, I do, we do want to get lost in the weeds and see what we see. But we also, we also have to keep it focused, because if you’re if your story doesn’t have a focus, it’s not really a story, right? A focused story will have a beginning, a middle and an end, and that’s what we’re trying. That’s what we’re looking for here. You’re structuring it except we’re not structuring it according to a template that we have developed in our minds. We are structuring it according to what we are seeing on the streets. And that’s, that’s the difficulty of photojournalism but also the fun of it, because it’s there’s so much magic that comes up in the middle and changes the story completely while you’re while you’re working. The wonderful interior shot of the family with a man in the table and a wife holding a baby and other kids by your side. How did you get that? I did not know them. I, actually that was from Instagram, I was asking. I was asking, like who’s working from home? So Cory, who’s the mom in the picture? And she’s actually a photographer that works for AOC. She wrote and said, yes, we’re working from home. Those guys were fantastic. They were absolutely amazing. Like I interviewed them beforehand. We sat around and we we talked for about an hour, 45 minutes, I guess. And then they said, okay, you want to see? Yeah, I want to see. So we went inside, he opened his computer. It’s not like an all hands meeting with his team. And meanwhile, the kids are screaming and they want this thing from the from the shelf. And Cory is like trying to help and she’s also trying to walk and then there’s like another one of the kids is climbing up on the chair, and he put his head down trying to have this meeting with his team. And I took a picture of I’ve got two frames of that. And that’s the second frame is not good. And he picked up his head and looked at me and said the one thing I did not intend today was to become a meme in the New York Times. It was so funny, but it was such a it was such a representative moment of how a lot of people are feeling. I’m sure we, I’m sure we can all relate to that in one way or another. Some of my shots seem to come from wide angle others from longer. I know, that’s interesting. They seem to come from that because it’s almost well it’s all shot on a 50 millimeter, which is the standard lens. What was my daily routine? There’s no routine. I mean wake up early, go to sleep late. That’s my routine. I run with my camera very occasionally, but it’s usually just like this is my, this is my favorite. It’s the easiest. So to the runner in photography, yes, you shoot with your phone, it’s the best. Hello from Columbia. Okay, I can’t help but wonder, how it can be worth it from a financial perspective? Is it? Nathan Clark cutting to the cutting to the economic heart of the matter right there. I don’t know any photographers. Sorry. I don’t spend time with any photographers who, or any editors, or any people for that matter who are putting the financial rewards of a story ahead of the story, a story that they feel needs to be told. And I think whether something is worth it, from a financial perspective is also a subjective question. To me, as long as I can pay rent and drink this disgusting smoothie that I’ve been drinking, that’s all I need. For somebody else, maybe they would have been on a holiday house in the Hamptons, but you know. So that’s a question that I think only you can really answer when you’re working. Are more people returning now? No, I don’t think more people are returning at all but I do think that people are so right now it’s sunny, and it’s not freezing, well this morning it was but now it’s not.


Ashley: Maybe we should actually finish on this because I know it’s so late there so I apologize to everybody else but Christopher Edwards. How does it feel considering the city was so desolate for so long? What is the period of adjustment for those who stayed look like? So people aren’t returning now necessarily. I’m not really seeing that, but people are going outside. And that, like I was on the Lower East Side yesterday, like running and drinking coffee, just on the street, and Orchard Street was alive. And it was so I don’t want to call it a street party but people were strolling people were dining outside people was smiling. I mean, like, at this point, the sun coming out after so much ice and isolation. The sun comes out and it’s almost like everyone’s taken MDMA. People are so happy, like I saw somebody on the street that I haven’t seen for a couple of weeks and they were like “Ashley!” I’m like easy. It’s the people who are here now, other people who want to be here. And that is a different New York than what I’ve experienced in all these years that I’ve lived here. There’s a lot of people who come here to make it. There’s a lot of people who come here to like, get the money, and it’s a lot of people who come here, because they’re ambitious, they just want to see if they can do it. The New Yorkers that are here now are New Yorkers that are invested and love this city and that is a big shift. You know, like walking on Orchard Street yesterday, or running, like I ran 17 miles through the city yesterday. And all the people that I saw, like, these are people who made a decision to not leave. And I know like there’s an economic question, like some people can’t leave that is true. There’s a lot of people who did have an opportunity to leave, and they didn’t. So it’s really, the dynamic in the city right now. And for me, the feeling of the future is, is positive because the city is going to be rebuilt by New Yorkers who want to be here and are invested in the city. Renee, what do you think? Should we should we wrap it up there?


Renee: Yeah, I mean, you got, did you want to answer the last two questions?


Ashley: Oh, there’s only two more, okay. Okay, running, running and shooting simultaneously, like running and photographing is the same thing like this, to me, there’s nothing. They’re both things that you do and you lose, you lose all of the chaff, all of the crap that fills your mind like how, like I need to go grocery shopping, I need to pay this bill or I need to, like meet somebody later on when when I’m taking pictures, and when I’m running, there is nothing else in the world. There’s nothing that I’m thinking about other than that moment. So to me, like, there’s no separation. Do you have any cases when you couldn’t publish the photo because the person didn’t agree and there was no model really signed? So we don’t use model leases in journalism. And there have certainly been images that I’ve made, where the person has said, like, I would really prefer that you didn’t use this picture of me. And I’m not against that, you know, like, okay, if we’re talking about like, a war crime in Iraq, that is a different story from somebody who’s just walking down the street in New York. You know, like, there’s millions of other people that I can spend a bit of time and make another picture. So I don’t need to be, I can be a prick but I don’t have to be a prick all the time. And I also like to think that I can try to be empathetic, you know, like a conversation. If somebody says, don’t take my picture, I’ll have a reaction to that but if somebody says I would prefer that you didn’t, because I don’t even want to go into it, but I just really prefer you didn’t that I respond to. As a documentary photographer, in New York, having two family members in high risk category really restrained me on the pandemic. My love for them would not allow me to put myself at risk and possibly expose them to the virus if I became ill. How do you handle challenging personal situations without repressing yourself beyond what feels right for your own development? That was, yeah, that’s been like a tough part of this whole thing, right? Especially with so much uncertainty around the virus, so I have been from March until August, I pretty much exclusively ran around 80 miles a week with my phone and took pictures because I knew that running, I could do safely. And I could witness the city has changed in a safe manner. By August, it was clear that I was wearing a high quality mask and taking precautions that I could work safely, even in some cases inside as we learn more about the virus. So I think erring on the side of caution, maybe with the exception of the ICU, I remember a couple of the nurses at the ICU were like, you’ve been sick, right? It’s like no, like, oh, and you have a child? Yeah, like, yeah, mmhmm. Okay, like why didn’t somebody tell me this was that bad? Of course, it’s that dangerous anyway. So it was it was erring on the side of caution, and trying to be constantly aware of like developments in the research. That’s it. We’ve answered all the questions.


Renee: I think they actually took anonymous ones that you missed Ash, but I didn’t want to, poor anonymous, they might want their questions answered.


Ashley: You have any cases where you couldn’t publish the photo, that one?


Renee: No, for both, if you could go back to the first day of shooting, editing, what advice would you give yourself?


Ashley: Oh, oh. I don’t know. I’m not sure that, I mean, look, it’s the same, it’s the same advice that I live by, which is be curious. Always be curious, never, never get stuck into a preconceived notion. You know, like some of the best advice I ever got, as a photographer was from an older photographer, that they called Rapunzel, because his career have been so long, he actually held on to his career by his long hair. Back in Melbourne, and he was Australian and he said, the best way to screw up a news job is to turn up with a preconceived idea of how it should look. And I think about that all the time. Always be ready for that to be completely different from how you expect. But I think that curiosity that Renee also shares is one of the things that carries us through this, so to say. I don’t think I would necessarily give myself advice except like, stick to the advice that has gotten you where you need to be. Yeah, anything, was there another one or was that it?


Renee: One below it. We’re all hoping, yeah..


Ashley: What long term changes you envision in the city? Ah, I don’t know. I can tell you like this summer is going to be interesting because the streets are now opening up to, this is gonna be amazing. There’s so many creatives and artists that are here, and then corporations, and private benefactors that are stepping up to fill in the void that the city is unable to fill. So Broadway theaters are going to remain closed, right? There’s 108 streets that have been designated as spaces that theatre and performance can take place and they can sell tickets. So if you can imagine like, I don’t know ballet performance or contemporary theatre taking place in the middle of New York City street I’m dying for summer, I can’t wait. Seeing people fight for the city to come back with the outdoor dining as it is where people actually, like we’ve worked out pretty good systems now for work from home and how to be safe and how to have common sense and not spread the virus. Hopefully, but with the performance, with the performance as well, I think it’s going to be magic. So I can’t tell you long term, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how it’s gonna happen. We also have a mayoral election this year and I think that for long term changes, whoever wins, that is going to really dictate how the city changes long term. But summer in New York, if anybody wants to move to New York, this is the time. Also cheap rent. Renee, thank you for joining us but also, thank you for trusting me with this massive body of work.


Renee: Thank you for all of it, and for all the readers in the audience. But yeah, I think the New York Times is very grateful to be able to get this work out there and use our platform, which has great reach globally to tell the story. So I really appreciate you guys and VII and giving us you know, even being able to have this talk and for everyone who attended. It’s been amazing. And I’m glad that we were able to shed some light and talk through the process because we never do that. So I’m really glad thank you for that as well.


Ashley: Cool. All right. I will talk to you very soon, I’m sure. Gianna Thank you. And thank you everybody for coming. Have a great Monday.


Renee: Happy Monday. Thanks, Gianna.

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