The New Symbols of Our Crisis

The New Symbols of Our Crisis

A photographer’s diary in the time of coronavirus. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.

The Nation and Magnum Foundation are partnering on a visual chronicle of untold stories as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and the rest of the world. Each week we’re focusing on and amplifying the experiences of frontline workers and communities disproportionately affected by the upheaval, all through the independent lens of image makers whose role in recording, collecting, and communicating stories is especially crucial in a time of collective isolation.

This week, photographer Rola Khayyat explores the symbols of our current state. Amid the continual wail of sirens, she finds that the emblems of this crisis—face masks, latex gloves, and signs telling customers that a store is closed or that they should keep a safe distance from one another—have sprouted up everywhere, just as spring is bringing new life to nature on our streets.

“As New York’s streets are swept clean of human activity, it’s the objects and signs left behind that become stand-ins for our collective presence,” Khayyat says. “Discarded waste, protective gear, handwritten signs, and shadows of the essential workforce—these are the new, commonplace sightings puncturing the ghostly void of a city on lockdown. Like forensic evidence, they point with urgency to larger and more chaotic undocumented worlds. I think of them on my way to replenish supplies and protective equipment for my own essential work.”

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