Images of the Pandemic: How a Seattle schoolteacher captured the moments

  • By Margaret Klimenkov-Paulk
  • Posted 7/22/2021
  • Essay 21276
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On March 13, 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating, Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered a statewide school closure. "Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have now spread to 15 counties in Washington State, which represents 75 percent of the state's population, and the number of positive test results have increased 29 percent in the last four days," Inslee said. "While we do not fully understand the role children have in transmitting the virus, we do know they have a significant role in transmitting other respiratory viruses" ("Proclamation 20-09"). For Washington teachers and students, Inslee's order brought in-person learning to a screeching halt. In this personal reminiscence, Margaret Klimenkov-Paulk, a fifth-grade teacher in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood and self-described "amateur photo enthusiast," recalls how her two-week photo project turned into a 358-day pandemic odyssey. 

'In the Fog of the Unknown'

Late winter of 2020 our local news reported that a new virus out of China was affecting a nursing home in Kirkland. We didn't know much about it except a group of people were dead. As news spread and more deaths were reported, COVID became the centerpiece of many conversations. Is this a pandemic or is it just the sniffles? Will it go away when it gets warm?

March 13 of 2020, I was teaching my Ballard fifth-grade students how to identify similes and metaphors, when my vice principal came in and asked to talk to me privately outside the room. She told me that Governor Jay Inslee and Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Schools, were closing all Washington schools for two weeks, to break the germ cycle. We all know how that went. With only two hours to collect all the materials needed to conduct "business as usual," arms loaded, I locked my classroom door for what turned out to be a full year.

As an amateur photo enthusiast, I thought to myself I could do a two-week photo essay to mark the time, and thus began my 358-day journey

My first 10 days were to entertain myself more than anything. I walked around my Ballard neighborhood taking photos of birds, empty parks, and a 2,000-piece puzzle yet to be put together. When it was announced that we would not return to school my entire community tensed up, with both fear and a distrust in the system that was meant to protect us. I decided to keep going.

I am an opportunistic photographer; I take my camera, I shut off my mind and begin "seeing," looking for beauty. Collectively, we were all stressed, and my solution was to bring beauty into my life through photography. My goal was to take photos of things that would make my social-media circle pause and forget their troubles and be reminded of the beauty around us.

In the beginning I titled my project Social Distancing. We were all in the fog of the unknown, told to stay away from each other, and hibernate. Everyone was afraid to interact except through social media.

From March to June 2020, after attempting to teach my students using technology that I had no clue how to use, I went on walks, often around my neighborhood. Mask on my face, camera in hand, looking for that one moment of beauty that I could share with my community. Walking through the neighborhood I discovered the well-tended flower gardens and some not so well tended, interesting architecture, and pets in windows.

One evening I stood in the middle of Ballard Avenue and took photos of the bell tower without fear of an oncoming car. I went on hikes in local parks just after sunrise or just before sunset to not run into anyone. I created photo opportunities at home. It was my attempt to breath deep.

Day 78 of physical distancing: While the sh*t is hitting the fan all over the U.S., mother nature wants to remind you that beauty is everywhere. Here is a grebe swimming in a pond reminiscent of impressionist art. Find some beauty today ... breathe deep.

Social Distancing forced isolation, which induced anxiety, sadness, and depression in many of us. My students struggled, my students' families did not know how to navigate online school, and I did not have the answers. It felt like a no-win situation. I realized that my project needed an uplift. On June 12, day 92, with a photo of a lone song sparrow on a tall branch I saw in Discovery Park, I renamed my project Physical Distancing, to say we do not need to become introverted hermits, we just cannot stand too close together. We may be physically apart but together we will survive this pandemic. This is when terms like virtual high-five, and six-foot apart handshakes became clear.

A Mission Becomes an Obsession

Summer approached and my mission to bring beauty to my community became an obsession. Every day I went out and took photos and every day I posted one. I spent time in pea patches, Magnuson Park, the Ballard Locks and anywhere I could stay six feet away from other people. I think it worked. People started to look at my photos and found beauty, a wee bit of humor and respite from the horrors of COVID and the turmoil of our politics.

School started up again and from my kitchen nook I taught my fifth-grade students, who became new members of my Physical Distancing daily dose of beauty community. I snapped photos of frogs, bugs, spiders, and reptiles because they are indeed cool.

Winter came and I was still in search of the light. Shorter days meant less light, so this forced me indoors and I explored light painting. I created images of bright colors and interesting shapes. People responded with enthusiasm.

Vaccine distribution began early January and on day 300, so I changed my project name to Waiting in the B2 line, which confused many of my audience, so I renamed it one more time to Waiting in Line. 

I contemplated when my project would end. At what point is this all going to be over? Should I keep going and end after a full year, or perhaps end it when I get vaccinated? 

On Day 358 I received my first shot of the vaccine and decided it was time to stop my project. I ended it with a photo of a hummingbird nest titled New Beginnings.

The impact of my project became evident in the comments I received when I said goodbye to Social Distancing, Physical Distancing, and Waiting in Line. The feedback I received told me I did it, that in some small way my photographs helped people escape, for a short time the stresses of the pandemic, which in turn also helped me.

"They remind me to look more closely and notice the beauty that surrounds us even in challenging times! -- B. W."

"You have brought so many more than 10 seconds of smiles to me. There have been days when I was really struggling and would pause and visit your photos to see what was new. I am so happy you're going to get the vaccine! Thank you for sharing this beauty -- A. D."

Living through a pandemic was (and remains) very difficult. Finding something, anything, that takes your mind off the stress and isolation is a life saver. I am thankful for photography and the people who enjoy photos.

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