For reasons unknown I began photographing abandoned masks while I was out and about this past year. It’s hard to say why I was drawn to them. Abandoned in parking lots, bushes, and streets, they looked so forlorn and lost. Maybe I saw myself in each of them: A sad, solitary figure lost in quarantine.
But now masks are going into the trash instead of abandoned in the streets. My “all clear” day is just two weeks away and I can take a step back and look at the big picture. The mask is an instantly recognizable symbol of the worst pandemic in more than a century. It’s also a political statement, emblematic of a nation divided. The mask represents what we as a nation have felt over the past year: Fear, sadness, anger, confusion, frustration, reassurance, hope. With slogans emblazoned on them, masks became walking billboards for causes we embrace and the ideologies that shape our lives.
Wherever we are on the social and political spectrum, no matter what our beliefs, the mask journeyed with us throughout the pandemic. We could never get away from it, not even by not wearing it. First, we were told not to wear a mask, then to wear one, then that things were so bad that we should wear an N95 mask, or at least double mask. The mask provided reassurance for some. For others it represented an over-reaching government. And so the mask in some ways is also representative of our democracy and the constitutional protection of self-expression.
Masks are slowly disappearing and we can see each other again. I hope we remember that whether or not we wore a mask, we are all human beings, citizens of this nation, neighbors and colleagues. But even in its fiery absence, the mask will always be present in our national consciousness, and remembered for the controversy it caused, rather than the safety it provided.