The coronavirus pandemic has brought on unprecedented challenges and obstacles for people in Philadelphia and around the world. Almost every line of work has been affected and with the closures of businesses and halt of countless services, people have been forced to shift and re-assess priorities.
Now, with many states making the move to fully reopen, people are heading back out on the job—but what exactly does going back to work look like for people during a pandemic? That question is essentially what piqued photographer Zave Smith’s interest for his new ‘Back to Work’ series.
“When people ask me what I shoot, my answer is usually drugs and money, because those are the people who hire me—the pharmaceuticals and financials. But it does vary,” jokes Smith.
When the virus hit, however, the photography business—like many others—virtually became null.
“The photo business just disappeared. I mean there is no commercial photography business at all right now—it’s just starting to creep back very, very slowly,” says Smith. “But basically, commercial photography stopped existing as an income source or something you could do for a living.”
Smith and his wife quarantined when COVID-19 first hit for safety reasons, but after surrounding areas began to move to the Yellow and Green Phases of reopening, curiosity did begin to circulate in the photographer’s mind.
“I was talking to a couple of my associates and this idea popped into my head, and I thought ‘Back to Work’ huh, what a great idea,” says Smith. “So I just basically just picked up my camera and I went out.”
Smith first headed out about a mile from his home in Media just to see how his idea would pan for a photo series. Then, the photographer headed to Market East and Market West areas before hitting more sections and business in and around Philly when discovering just how interesting this notion of being back on the job is for different people.
“I’m hoping to get into other businesses, so I have both neighborhood views and business views. I plan to keep it ongoing and shoot one day a week,” says Smith. “When I first started shooting, the people I mainly saw were restauranteurs, construction workers and security workers because they were the ones who were still on the job. The security workers seemed bored because there wasn’t much going on, the construction workers were happy to be working and the restaurant owners were kind of bittersweet—they were happy they could be open, but they were only making 10 cents on the dollar of what they usually make. The take-out just wasn’t bringing in the money, there’s a look of acquiescence in their attitude.
“Now, small businesspeople tend to be optimistic by nature, so they tend to have this optimism, but at the same time there was this certain little bit of desperation in their voice maybe,” adds Smith. “I didn’t spend a lot of time with these people, because I caught them in the middle of a working day—I just kind of wandered. So, I only got between one and five minutes with any subject.”
Most recently, Smith was in Upper Darby and had a first-hand look at what the reality for many retailers and barber shops looks like reopening after a devastating pandemic. Choosing to point the lens on those small and local businesses is what gives the series its heartbeat.
“You can’t shoot many of the chains because the person you want to shoot has to ask their manager, who has to ask their manager, who has to ask their manager and by the time you’ve got a response from all that, you’d be retired,” explains Smith. “So, you’ve really got to go for locally owned businesses.”
“What I’ve always been impressed about is how human beings, for the most part, are extremely resilient and we adapt. It’s not the strongest animal that survives, it’s the most adaptable, and humans have been a very successful animal on this planet because we are good at adapting,” says Smith. “The other things I’ve always felt is the American system of government while with many, many problems tends to self-correct itself over the long term. We’ve made as a country a lot of dumb decisions—our genius is we tend to correct ourselves eventually and overcome these things to become a better society and a better nation. So, I’m hoping people will get to look at this stuff and get a sense of the resiliency of people and of our country.”
However, despite the resiliency, it’s not lost on Smith the sensitive circumstances that people are under when heading back to work.
“My slight nervousness about this series is that someone will look at ‘Back to Work’ and think he must be some Pro-Trump right-winged guy-—I’m not that person and that’s not what I’m trying to promote,” he explains. “There is no political agenda here—this is our society trying to adapt to our present circumstances the best we know how. Some people are adapting better, some worse. Some people, it’s really knocking them down, other people have found the strength to deal with it. We’re in a really, really difficult situation right now.”
So what words are Smith’s pictures speaking in ‘Back to Work’? They sing a tune of what the tenacity of the human spirit can look like when put to the test, but also just how we as people can showcase the best and most courageous parts of our personalities in a time where everything feels a bit dark and uncertain.
“There’s no good answer if you’re a restauranteur or a bar owner, there’s no good answer if you own a stadium or a club or you run an event business—there just isn’t,” says Smith. “If anything, this is the beauty of the resiliency of our people.”