In Alcalde, New Mexico, a Native American man dances on top of the pedestal from which the controversial statue of Juan de Oñate was recently removed. In Santa Fe, a man scours the ground, searching for a piece of the shattered obelisk on the Santa Fe Plaza to keep as a memento. In Albuquerque, a homeless woman, her sister, and niece manage to scrape up enough money to rent a room for the night.
Protests, homelessness, immigration, criminal justice reform, and substance abuse didn’t disappear during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in many instances were only exacerbated by it. In an online photo collection, Our Lives Now: A Photographic Journal of Life During the Pandemic, writer and photographer Don Usner chronicled life during that time, shooting images for stories published by Searchlight New Mexico and shooting on his own.
For most of his career, the 64-year-old was a fine arts photographer and worked on environmental, history-based, and human-interest book projects.
“This is my first real foray into photojournalism,” says Usner, who joined Searchlight, a nonprofit news organization for investigative and public service journalism, about three-and-a-half years ago
“It’s an interesting discipline for me. I was used to a broader approach to street photography, which was not necessarily issue focused.”
“He’s fearless,” says Searchlight Editor and Executive Director Sara Solovitch. “He was out there every day during the pandemic and he never failed to come back with striking images.”
A selection of prints from Our Lives Now opens on Friday, Sept. 3, at El Zaguán. The show is presented by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation in partnership with Searchlight. What it reveals are the overlooked stories and struggles of people, many of them on the margins of society, and how they’ve coped or are attempting to cope with a public health crisis.
“There are five towns that we chose to revisit in a structured way over one year,” says Usner, who was born in Embudo and raised in Los Alamos and Chimayó. “Those were Shiprock, Gallup, Carlsbad, Anthony, and Las Vegas. As I was going and coming to those places, I would often, on my own, stop someplace or visit someplace that was tangential to that particular project and get some other pictures.”
The photographs aren’t of overcrowded hospitals, exhausted first responders, people comfortably sequestered at home, or anti-mask and anti-vaccination protests.
This is another side of the current predicament we’re all in, and it’s one that’s focused more on the less fortunate, such as Isela Ivonne Camarena, a homeless woman who told Usner: “I’ve never gone through this situation, being sick outside of my damn own home, and now I’m homeless and then sick. That’s the worst thing that could happen to you. For someone to be sick and homeless, it’s a humiliating thing.”
The photographs include expanded captions, often with Usner’s short narratives about the subjects, and sometimes with quotes he collected or took from the articles they accompanied.
In Usner’s stark black-and-white photograph of Camarena, she sits on the edge of a bed in a spartan hotel room, her niece resting on a bed nearby. The pain and anguish are etched onto Camarena’s face, and her eyes seem to plead for mercy. She’s a member of an at-risk population, one without easy access to medical care. And, as journalist Rachel Mabe points out in her Searchlight article “Taking it to the Streets” (March 30, 2020), it’s a population with less access to basic human necessities, such as housing and sanitation.
For some New Mexicans, the pandemic only aggravates an already desperate situation. In his studio in Radio Plaza, Usner points out one photograph, A man who is homeless sorts through his drug paraphernalia on the street in Santa Fe (2020). In it, a man sits on the sidewalk, his legs sprawled out in front of him; he seems to be preparing to shoot up.
It almost didn’t make it into the exhibition.
“There was a lot of talk about how it was just too dark, and maybe I shouldn’t include it,” Usner says. But he decided to keep it in the show because the article in which it was originally published was on the impact of COVID on New Mexico’s homeless population. “I asked him, ‘What do you think about COVID?’ And he looked at me and just said ‘DNR.’
"I thought that was so powerful. That was his attitude. ‘Whatever happens, just don’t resuscitate me.’”
Usner included images from Santa Fe and Albuquerque in the exhibition, as well as some from the five towns that served as the project’s focus.
“Learning about all these places is part of the thrill of it for me,” he says. “I had no experience with Anthony. It’s right on the border with Texas. The border runs right through it, so there’s Anthony, New Mexico, and Anthony, Texas. There’s a distinct difference. As soon as you enter Texas the laws change and the COVID restrictions were completely different — pretty strong lock down in New Mexico and pretty open in Texas — which made for an interesting dynamic.”
Usner’s project spanned a year that encompassed more than just mask wearing and public health concerns. Tensions boiled over in protests around the country, intensified, perhaps, by the disruptions caused by the pandemic. So in this show he included images of significant protests in Northern New Mexico, which were spurred by issues of social justice and serve as a reflection of what was happening on a national scale.
“I included a couple on the Oñate statue up north and the monument on the Plaza. I didn’t think I could talk about the year without including some mention of those.”
The statue of Juan de Oñate, New Mexico’s first colonial-era governor, was viewed by many as a monument to racism and genocide. It was removed on the order of Rio Arriba County officials in June 2020.
“The Oñate statue was not even an assignment,” he says. “I just wanted to be there. The protesters were singing, chanting, and shouting right in each other’s faces with no masks. I thought that was kind of a poignant image.”
Usner’s photographs, like the best of photojournalism, stand as documents of humanity’s resiliency and despair.
“I’ve seen him with people,” Solovitch says. “He really knows how to connect. … He has compassion for people and they respond in kind.”
The show, ostensibly, presents images mostly of outsiders. But the emphasis isn’t on “their lives.” As the title states, it’s on “ours.”
“What I love about doing this kind of photography is the human interaction,” he says. “I was so impressed with the people I met and so moved by many of their circumstances.”