Documenting Crossroads: Survival and Remembrance Under the Pandemic

4: Picturing the Lost

— “It is very hard to lose a dad, from one moment to another without being prepared, this pandemic came from nowhere to destroy our lives and leave us in hunger and misery. I never thought this would break our hearts like this. So many families crying and without food and jobless, how can they face this.”
— “I have great sadness in my heart because I could not be with him in his last moments, it hurts me very much not to have been present.”
— “It is very sad that overnight we no longer have her with us, without any help and such hard expenses, I do not know what will happen. God will help us.”

Excerpted from the online memorial posted by Make the Road New York

2020 has been a year of reckoning with public memory. Around the U.S., #BlackLivesMatter protestors have toppled prominent public memorials to colonizers, slave owners, Confederate generals, and white supremacists. Nearly everywhere, graffiti artists have tagged sculptures, using brightly colored spray paint to turn bronze statuary and granite plinths into symbols of outrage rather than of past glory. In Newark’s Washington Park, the pedestal that once held a statue of Christopher Columbus is empty, having been removed by the city to save it from destruction. Nearby, an equestrian statue of George Washington has been canceled through the simple act of spray painting.

The protests over memorials raise profound questions: Whose past should we remember? Who should be commemorated? Whose lives matter?

These questions are even more urgent at a moment when several hundred thousand Americans—disproportionately Black, indigenous, and Latinx—have fallen to the Covid-19 pandemic. As we debate memorialization, we should turn our eyes toward the everyday memorials; not those that celebrate politicians or planters, but those that remember the ordinary people we have lost in 2020. They offer a poignant, if fleeting, alternative to men on horseback, one that reflects the tragedy of now.

During the pandemic, I visited segregated neighborhoods throughout New York to document the pandemic’s effect on the everyday life of the city. I paid special attention to those neighborhoods that are home to essential workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America who couldn’t stop working during the quarantine. Corona, Queens, was one of the hardest hit places in all of the U.S. during the first wave of the virus. There, in Queens, I found an improvised memorial to those who died of Covid-19.

July 5, 2020: While there are thousands of portraits of victims of the pandemic online, it’s rare to see them on the walls of buildings along busy urban crossroads. One notable exception is a group of 30 color photocopies placed on a wooden fence at 104-21 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens. The exhibit is sponsored by Make the Road New York, a community organization. Labeled “Memorial to Those Who Walked With Us,” the pictures depict young and old enjoying life in their homes, places of work, and on city streets. The wall has attracted those who want to affix portraits of their loved ones in a public place, prompting Make the Road to add a note in English and Spanish saying, “DO NOT put pictures without family approval.”

July 18, 2020: When I inquired why the memorial portraits were left unnamed, I was told by a member of Make the Road New York to look up their names on the organization’s website. I was surprised to discover that those who “had walked with us” had old-fashioned Spanish names such as Rodrigo, Alcenio, Sabino, Ifigenia.

August 24, 2020: I found two passersby looking at the memorial portraits. One of the passersby remarked that he was acquainted with the person wearing a Mexican sombrero. When I asked him what he felt was the purpose of placing portraits of deceased people on a wall, he answered, “If a family member sees him, he finds out.” So, besides functioning as a memorial, the photos serve as a message board.

August 30, 2020: My first impulse when I saw the memorial portrait of Yaqueline on the gates of her beauty salon on 101st Street, Corona, Queens, was that she was another victim of the pandemic. But when I asked, a neighbor told me that she had been knifed by her jealous partner. He asked me if I was “looking for a lost relative,” explaining that there were no public portraits of the victims of the pandemic in the neighborhood.

October 4, 2020: By now the portraits began to fall. Passersby were trampling on the likeness of Jorge Jara, “Papito querido,” as it lay on the street. Another portrait had clearly fallen but had been picked up and placed back with the rest.

I was surprised to discover that the memorial has curators. By October 14, the stained and crinkled portrait of Jorge Jara was back with the rest of “Those Who Walked With Us.” When comparing a three-month-old view of the “walkers” with a recent one, I found that some of the portraits, such as the wedding portrait, were not part of the original set. The project is alive.

As long as they remain attached to a temporary fence in Corona, Queens, these images of waiters, pushcart operators, folks relaxing in their homes or taking a break from work, continue to remind us of these people’s existence and of how they carried their origins and their new country in their hearts. When I revisited the memorial on November 21, the portraits had been removed, and behind the green fence an American flag was waving. Fortunately, the likenesses of the departed have found a home at the Library of Congress.

Camilo José Vergara
November 23, 2020

This exhibition has four parts, each with its own dedicated page and image gallery. All pages link to every other exhibition page. Scroll past the image gallery below to find the Overheard and Observed content.


Overheard and Observed

“What a time to be alive.”

The following observations and transcriptions of voices from the streets provide some glimpses into developing situations, little fragments of reality, meant to add another dimension of meaning to the instants and time sequences captured by the photographs.

“Happening! happening! happening! happening! happening! happening!” yelled a man as he crossed Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem on Father’s Day, June 21, 2020.

“They’re talking about testing everybody; they’re getting new strains here; the young kids are getting them. My niece was driving without a mask, and my mother was in the car. You know what they’re saying, that it’s best to be outside where the air is circulating.” Man talking on the phone on the train to Newark, July 2, 2020.

“I don’t know who you think you are. You used to be in jail. Why do you pick on me? That’s not fair. The last person who picked on me is dead.” Woman yelling on Broad Street, Newark, July 2, 2020.

I observed a slow-motion dance requiring complete concentration. Its movements were both graceful and terrifying. In one instance, an elderly man, holding on to a donated box of food, was making a supreme effort not to fall while trying to get into the southbound A train at the West 125th Street Station. He couldn’t let go of a pole he was holding on to and missed the train. I have seen people unable to move, holding on to a pole, or to the railing on stairs, afraid of falling. I watch them staying in place, knees bent, moving up and down. Once I called to a woman offering to help, but she refused assistance. July 3, 2020.

September 8, 2020: Praying over a young man on East 149th Street at Third Avenue, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
September 8, 2020: Praying over a young man on East 149th Street at Third Avenue, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara

“A grinding of teeth in hell, the ship is sinking. If you are sick, Jesus cures and saves. Glory to God.” Evangelist preaching on Southern Boulevard at Westchester Avenue, Bronx, July 4, 2020.

Deborah was preaching alone outside a closed storefront on Third Avenue, The Bronx: “St. Luke said, ‘Go into the highways and byways and preach the Lord.’” She claimed that the Lord had told her to preach at that spot. “There have always been epidemics and virus,” she said, adding, “This is serious, don’t take me wrong.” Then, as if consoling those who would succumb to the virus, she quoted 2 Corinthians: “To be absent from the body is to be in the presence of the Lord.” July 6, 2020.

Two men without masks were riding the 2 train in the Bronx on July 6. One was sitting by the subway map; as the other man approached the map to look for directions, the man sitting angrily covered his face with his T-shirt, and then, as if to record the unsafe movement into his space, he shot a video of the man looking at the map, who ignored him.

“The darkness in this world is getting worse every day because we refuse to listen to God. It is the devil who controls us; our master is the devil; we are slaves to him. Jesus is coming again! Repent, repent now. After you die it will be too late.” Street evangelist, Jesus of the World Ministry, East 163rd at Southern Boulevard, Bronx, July 13, 2020.

September 15, 2020: Sleeping on the 1 train, Upper West Side, New York, NY. © Camilo José Vergara
September 15, 2020: Sleeping on the 1 train, Upper West Side, New York, New York. © Camilo José Vergara

I am told that in a subway car full of riders, I should not take pictures without people’s authorization. Yet the subways constitute an important part of my documentation, and I find it impossible to ask every rider for permission. On two occasions, people threatened to break my camera, demanding that I erase the images. While I erased the images, they hovered over me. One time I was intrigued by a little Black girl dressed in pink sitting next to a large, pink, plush unicorn. I didn’t get to take a picture, but the caretaker of the girl assumed that I had, and she demanded that I erase the photos. I showed her the pictures I had on my memory card, but she insisted that I go back and forth to make sure I wasn’t hiding something. Not finding a photo of the little girl, she accused me of lying and hiding pictures of children. She was screaming, insinuating that I was a pedophile. She asked me why I was shaking, taking this to be a sign of guilt. I was afraid that other passengers would get involved, but they didn’t.

On Sunday, August 2, I visited Our Lady of Sorrows, originally a solid and comforting German immigrant church, on 37th Avenue in Corona, Queens, the epicenter of the pandemic. Approaching the church, I saw a handful of people sitting on the steps, listening to the service. Inside the dark nave, Mass was in progress, with the congregation getting ready to receive Holy Communion. I had not seen so many people in one place since the start of the pandemic. They were not distancing. A voice from the loudspeakers asked the flock not to touch the fingers of the celebrants when receiving Communion. This once-peaceful refuge had the monster Covid-19 as a guest. I left after a couple of minutes, convinced that this afternoon Mass was going to result in parishioners becoming infected.

Returning to Our Lady of Sorrows on August 9, I saw 2020 census workers sitting at folding tables distributing literature and giving away masks in front of the church. As I tried to enter the sanctuary, I was told to go through what I thought was a side entrance, but it led instead to a backyard open-air service. I tried again to enter the church, only to be told by an usher wearing a mask and a face shield that this was not possible since they had already admitted the full-capacity 150 people allowed by law.

September 16, 2020: Mural giving advice to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Chestnut Street at Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
September 16, 2020: Mural giving advice to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Chestnut Street at Pitkin Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. © Camilo José Vergara

At Corona Plaza in Queens, an announcer invited people to dance, to “share the joy of the day on such a beautiful afternoon, bailando, bailando.” A small group of Ecuadorians were listening to a woman singing, “Why are you going so far away from me?” August 2, 2020.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God.
Never, never, never.
Incredible, incredible.
Oh shit.
Incredible.” Middle-aged white man, W train, Manhattan, August 6, 2020.

There are humble enclaves that I return to for companionship with young people less than half of my age. Birdy’s, one such oasis, is a corner bar with picnic tables on the street at Charles Place in Brooklyn I first visited this enclave on July 7. I want to believe that a new America may be emerging in these places. The conversations I overhear are about projects, real estate, jobs in the gig economy, and the “strange times” we live in with this Covid-19 business. A Black man who “had the brightest ideas” describes a video game where blind angels “are going into the final battle.” A homeless man came around politely begging and collecting empty cans, while every few minutes the M train rumbles above Myrtle Avenue

On September 18, I overheard a group of Hispanic teachers discussing retirement. One of them commented, “You get your full pension after 30 years”; another sitting next to him added that by then he would then be 54. One of the teachers was wearing a blue T-shirt that had written on it: S-E-N-I-O-R-S 2020 The one where they were Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E-D.

Man riding a Newark bus talking on the phone: “You are not getting sick, you are not getting the virus, you are not getting AIDS.” August 14 2020.

“Scared?” a man asked me as I moved out of a subway seat because he sat next to me. I answered by asking if he was scared. “No,” he answered, “I am a man, see this,” and he pulled the black skin of his arm. 2 Train, Manhattan, August 24, 2020.

August 15, 2020: Benji and his dog, Benji, celebrating his mother-in-law’s 66th birthday with family at a picnic, Claremont Park, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
August 15, 2020: Benji and his dog, Benji, celebrating his mother-in-law’s 66th birthday with family at a picnic, Claremont Park, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara

The former Bushwick Avenue Congregational Church, built in 1895, was described by The New York Times as one of the “most comfortable and attractive churches in the Eastern District.” Now the building is owned by The Restoration Worship Temple, which hosts an antique and thrift shop there. I got in trouble when I went to photograph the interior. Upon leaving, I was followed by a worker sitting by the entrance who asked me to delete the photos. When I refused, he hit my hand, making me drop my notebook, whereupon he picked it up and left with it. 1170 Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn, August 25, 2020.

I often take the subway to The Bronx from the chaotic 125th St. Station on the east side IRT line. In the station, I usually see four police officers breathing the foul air and talking to one another or on their cellphones. The officers, a mixed group of white, Latino and Black, often overlook fare evaders and small-time drug dealing, situations where an intervention may result in exposure to the virus. They can also be seen offering help to people in distress. I once asked a policeman at this station to check on an elderly lady who was coughing nonstop and could barely stand, and an officer went down to her on the lower level, but she refused assistance. On August 25, I saw two young white officers trying to help a Black man wearing a backpack and a baseball hat who was lying on the floor at the center of a circle on the station’s lobby floor. His arms and legs were moving as if he were trying to swim in slow motion. Apparently, he was having an epileptic fit. One of the officers, without gloves, gently placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. Another officer, seeing me taking pictures of the incident, turned on his body camera. Many people walked by without looking.

“It is always good to smile. God gave you something to smile about.” Woman, Jerome Avenue, Bronx, August 28, 2020.

Around 3 pm on a sunny, early September day, Javon Bradley, a 28-year-old man, was shot and killed in front of the Wells Fargo branch bank on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Among the bystanders’ comments: “A shooting, he ran and got inside the van.” “They shot him dead.” “They carried him away in the ambulance, a drive by, they just blow your head over. Unbelievable, unbelievable.” “That is the world. I cannot get inside the bank, I cannot get money.”

Veneno, veneno, veneno para las cucarachas a veinte pesos” (“Poison, poison, poison for cockroaches, for 20 pesos”). Man selling poison, Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, September 6, 2020.

Ocho pesos, cheap soap to wash your clothes,” said the man selling a bag of Tide on Hunts Point Avenue Next to him, a woman holding a paper cup was begging; they were trying to get some cash one way or another. I looked around for additional goods for sale but didn’t see any. After trying for a while, the couple left the spot carrying the bag of Tide with them. Bronx, September 8, 2020.

“He broke the glass in the window. There’s blood in the sidewalk. He was carried away in the ambulance.” Cordoned-off scene of the crime in front of PL$ Check Cashing, East 149th Street, Bronx, September 8, 2020.

Woman talking about her son: “He goes to charter school, his main leader is still sick with Covid, the next step she has to go to the hospital.” September 19, 2020.

“How are the wife and the kids?” a street vendor in front of the Apollo Theater asked a passerby. He answers: “The wife is beautiful, everybody is beautiful.” September 21, 2020.

“Covid-19, Covid-19, Covid-19.” Young man singing as he walks along Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, September 27.

September 30, 2020: Thank You to Hospital Workers mural by the Down Neck Arts Collective; adjacent to University Hospital on South Orange Avenue at Bergen Street, Newark, New Jersey. © Camilo José Vergara
September 30, 2020: Thank You to Hospital Workers mural by the Down Neck Arts Collective; adjacent to University Hospital on South Orange Avenue at Bergen Street, Newark, New Jersey. © Camilo José Vergara

“She went to the hospital, the doctor sent her home. He told her to drink a glass of wine.” Overheard telephone conversation, 7 train, Queens, October 17, 2020.

“You can’t take pictures of the business, it is private,” the cook of La Esquina, Salchipapa Ecuatoriana, told me. When I replied that I was photographing the streets of New York City, he told me to photograph the sidewalk, not his business. Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, October 24, 2020.

On the Sunday afternoon of October 25, walking past Melrose Bridal Palace on Willis Avenue and East 145th Street, I was surprised to see this small store packed with adults, few wearing masks; an additional half dozen people spilled over onto the sidewalk. It struck me as an ideal spot for the virus to spread, and too dangerous for me to go inside and take photos. So I called 911 and was told that my call “was not an emergency,” and that I should report it to 311, the city’s number to report all kinds of non-emergency problems.

The next day I called the 40th Precinct and spoke to Officer Darling at the patrol desk. When he told me to call 311, I asked him if he could just get a squad car to stop by the store and talk to the owner. He told me that if police officers had seen the gathering, they would have warned the crowd and perhaps given the store owner a summons, but since I had seen it, and since the violation had happened the day before, there was nothing they could do.

So I continued to go through the system by calling 311 and was told, “We’re here to help.” The operator asked how many of the people were employees and how many were customers. I said that I guessed that most of the people in such a small establishment must have been customers, and what was needed was immediate contact tracing to stop the virus from spreading. My complaint, number 31104404781, will be passed on to the City’s Office of Special Enforcement Team, which claims to respond within seven days. I replied that seven days would give the virus plenty of time to spread in the Bronx and elsewhere. On November 2, I called 311 to find out what had happened. I was told that the enforcement team had visited on the 26th of October and declared the “business in no compliance.” The complaint was closed. On November 6 I walked by the Melrose Bridal Palace. Prominently displayed on the entrance door was a note saying: “4 costumers at a time please. Masks must be used to enter. Thank you.”

October 26, epilepsy. Walking across the Grand Concourse in The Bronx on a rainy day, I saw a man lying on the ground. A woman, a passerby who had intervened, spoke to him in Spanish and he didn’t seem to understand; I thought that he might be Albanian because there are many Albanians in that neighborhood. Emergency workers had also assembled around him. He mentioned Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, but they told him that they would take him to a Bronx hospital. They asked him to sit up, which he did. The passerby who was talking to him reported that he was doing well. The emergency workers asked him in Spanish if he had a family, if he was epileptic, what his name was, if he had an ID, what day it was, and how he was feeling. The man didn’t answer the questions and seemed reluctant to get into the ambulance. Nevertheless, the woman said, “Take him in. Let’s go,” and to my surprise the emergency workers readily approved, as they tied him to a stretcher and carried him into the ambulance.

On November 2, I was walking by a bus stop on Manhattan’s East 125th Street, a place where clients of the methadone clinic at 1825 Park Avenue hang out. There I saw a group of five middle aged men huddled together, two of them holding canes, looking at their phones. I could not resist photographing them, so I quickly lifted my camera above my head, took the picture, and continued walking towards the subway station on Lexington Avenue Behind me I heard voices repeatedly screaming “Yo!” I decided to continue walking fast toward the subway station, where I knew I would find policemen and video cameras; once there, I explained to a young officer what was happening. As the men approached, he told me to go through the turnstile and down into the station. It was a slow-motion pursuit by five angry men. I was surprised that they were willing to go down two flights of stairs to find me.

At Broadway and Palmetto Street, I saw a leftover piece of a sign pasted on a wall: “White people used to use Black babies as alligator bait,” it read, signed “Joseph.” A few yards west, I saw a poster depicting a bright-eyed Black baby holding $50 bills in his hand and $100 bills in his headband, also signed “Joseph,” with a link to his Instagram account.

October 26, 2020: Improvised outdoor waiting room, medical offices at 1624 University Avenue/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
October 26, 2020: Improvised outdoor waiting room, medical offices at 1624 University Avenue/Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Bronx, New York. © Camilo José Vergara

“I am broke, I don’t care, I want shit to happen now. Figure it out, figure it out.” Woman yelling on the 3 train, Harlem, November 14, 2020.

Members of the Salvation & Deliverance Church singing, “Glory to God hallelujah. Glory hallelujah. We will rejoice, oh Jesus. This is a day the Lord has made. He has made me glad.” West 110th Street, Harlem, November 14, 2020.

“There was nothing on 127th. Things were harder last Sunday, 46 boxes. What am I going to do with the damn boxes? Sometimes people do not want the boxes. A fucking old man got mad, he asked what am I going to do to stop them from sending me boxes? He wants to return them. They surely put his name on the list without him knowing. Wednesday was just boxes, they put everything in boxes.” Mexican bicycle delivery man inside a bank lobby talking on the phone. Broadway, Manhattan, November 15, 2020.

Outside the Wadsworth Medical Group, on a cold day, six patients were waiting to see a general practitioner. “I am waiting for an hour. It is cold here,” 77-year-old Ramon told me. A sign at the entrance reads, “It is forbidden to wait inside the building without permission. Patients with appointments can wait outside until a Medical Group employee lets them in. Those that enter the building without permission will have their appointment cancelled.” Manhattan, November 17, 2020.

“The minister goes around giving out masks, but we don’t want masks, we want food.” Cathy, waiting in line at the United, Yes We Can food pantry, 221 East 122nd Street, Harlem, November 24, 2020.

“Get closer, get closer, move, move with energy. Move gentlemen, move, move on, move on. Next person. This way everybody eats. Another food truck is coming, I am going to find out.” Volunteer addressing people queuing for food donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 104-10 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, November 28, 2020.

Camilo José Vergara
November 29, 2020