Street Photography Disrupted by Social Distancing

As a street photographer, I know that I will not be able to do a credible shoot for some time. My style almost demands crowds so that there is a diversity of people and activities. Not all activities are worthy of a street photograph. Street photography is similar to nature photography in that respect. It takes time and patience to find a worthy scene because my images are little vignettes that evoke an emotion or tell a story.

My images are immersive because I get close to my subjects and a crowd gives me cover so that I do not influence the action. Social distancing makes it impossible to get lost in a crowd or to get close to my subjects. The crowds of Boston themselves are temporarily gone and those people who remain walk in small groups and keep their distance from others..

Bicycle rides into Boston are one of the ways that I use to find street photography subjects and on Monday, 6 April, I took my first bicycle ride into Boston this year. I wore a bandanna over my nose and mouth. My goal was to determine the impact of social distancing on street photography. Usually, I ride to one of my favorite locations and linger, relaxing or eating lunch and waiting for something to happen. Monday was not a usual day due to the virus.

My bicycle trips to Boston often yield fifty to one hundred images of people enjoying life in the city. On Monday there was not a single scene worth capturing. Everywhere I went, people were trying to pass time outdoors on a nice day rather than indoors taking in more televised commentary on the virus. They were deliberate in their pursuit of exercise and fresh air and were not in a mood to stop and play.

There were lots of people as I approached downtown on the Esplanade, although they were trying to maintain a safe distance among them. Few were wearing masks or face covering, but it is still early in the epidemic and I imagine others will comply as they see their fellow citizen doing so. Everybody was on the move and nothing unusual was happening.

At the Hatch Shell I crossed Storrow Drive into Beacon Hill. From there I rode along the edge of the Public Garden and into the Common. There was a very low concentration of people distributed throughout the park. In contrast, the area across the street from the Park Street Church was occupied by thirty to forty homeless people who were guarding shopping carts carrying all of their worldly possessions, sleeping on the benches, or engaging in boisterous conversations. Social distancing is difficult in their world and I wondered how they managed to care for themselves if they got sick.

Protecting myself in Boston during COVID-19 pandemic
Me on 6 April 2020 with Boston Common Behind

This part of the Common is one of my favorite places in Boston, but the typical flow of people was missing except for a few locals passing among the homeless who were occupying most of the park benches. The food trucks and pushcarts were also missing, one source for lunch during normal times. The people who staff the food trucks and pushcarts are also missing their source of income for the duration. The cheerful gatherings of people and tourist groups around Brewer Fountain are gone.

As I continued my ride from the Common, the streets of Boston were devoid of the usual crush of traffic and honking horns. I rode through areas that I would not usually attempt on my bicycle. Across from City Hall on Congress Street I stopped at the statue of former  Boston mayor Kevin White. Someone had strapped a white face mask to his head, a reminder of the times to all who passed.

Mayor Kevin White Statue
Mayor Kevin White Statue

Surface Road along the Rose Kennedy Greenway was uncommonly safe for a person on a bicycle. I rode south and from there I turned left on Seaport Boulevard, my favorite route to the Seaport District and the South End because a bike path takes me well into the Seaport. I worked my way to Castle Island and Pleasure Bay where people seemed to be congregating.

From the Bike Lane on Surface Road
From the Bike Lane on Surface Road

The area around Castle Island been a particular problem for city health officials because crowds of people were gathering there on nice days and this was one of those nice days. The solution has been to block all curb parking around Pleasure Bay and to barricade the entrance to Castle Island. Even though there was no parking, there was a large number of people walking around the area, probably locals from Southie. I took up a position on one of the barricades to eat the lunch that I had with me. As I sat there at least ten cars drove up to the barricade and left discouraged.

Nearly Empty Seaport Boulevard
Nearly Empty Seaport Boulevard

After a quick lunch I also left, riding back through the Seaport, into the North End, and back to the Charles River for the bicycle trip back to my car in Bedford. I felt that hanging around trying to salvage my photo outing would break the rules of social distancing anyway. A man with a bandanna covering most of his face approaching with a camera pointing your way would be a bit intimidating. When I got home I had five or six images in my camera, none of which satisfy my standards. They are mostly the familiar scenes of empty streets that you have seen on the news. I enjoyed the ride, but miss being in the crush of people that makes street photography so much fun.