How Photographers Have Adjusted to Capturing Their Subjects at a Distance During the Pandemic

Local artists are coming up with creative ways to take socially distanced portraits—and the results are surprisingly intimate

Last year, film and commercial producer Kyle Roper worked with artist Brendan Barry on the Skyscraper Camera, a project that turned the 46th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper into a giant camera designed to make large-format images. This year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders came in, Roper decided to create a camera obscura right in his front room. “Brendan had done this Instagram TV story where he was encouraging people to make camera obscuras in their home,” says Roper on a video call, “and I thought, well, I’ve got a lot of time on my hand, why don’t I do that?”

Using cardboard boxes, photographic paper, lots of YouTube videos and assorted odds and ends, Roper installed the makeshift camera into his front door and turned his bathroom into a dark room. He invited friends and neighbors to stand outside as he took their portraits, giving them instructions on how to pose via speaker phone.

“It’s a very slow process,” he says, but, my mid-May, he had shot about 20 people. He says the experience has helped him during this weird time.

“The trial and error of trying to figure it out, trying to get it right, learning from my mistakes, has been mentally engaging,” he says. “The other is that I get to see people. They’re standing outside my front door and we’re talking on speaker phone, but it still feels like we’re connected.”

socially distanced portraits photography
Kyle Roper with his socially distanced portrait setup

While social distancing, some photographers—both professionals and hobbyists—have been challenging themselves to capture images of people without getting too close.

L.A.-based lifestyle and commercial photographer Robiee Ziegler has shot for brands like Airbnb and American Express, but as the pandemic hit “the emails stopped coming,” she says by phone. Meanwhile, a friend had asked to stop by her place and Ziegler, wanting to maintain physical space, obliged so long as she stayed on her balcony and the friend stood on the ground below her. Her photo project Making Waves was born out of that encounter.

“I wanted to bring a little bit of light in from the darkness,” she says.

Over the past few months, Ziegler has traveled from Calabasas to Long Beach and has photographed and interviewed close to 300 people during the pandemic. “I don’t go inside anyone’s home. I only photograph on the outside,” she says. She also maintains at least six feet of distance, using longer lenses for tighter images. Often, Ziegler will wave her hand in front of the camera, a friendly gesture that reminds the viewer of the physical distance between the photographer and the subject.

Making Waves is a “donation-based, community-driven” project that’s become Ziegler’s full-time job for the moment. People can sign up for a photo session through Ziegler’s website—she tries to schedule multiple shoots in the same area for the same day—or reach out to her on Instagram. The donations help keep her photography business going. People can also purchase prints through her website, with 10 percent of those proceeds benefiting Artist Relief. The response has been heartwarming. A woman in Colorado requested a photo shoot of her mother. Another woman gave her film, which Ziegler passed on to another photographer to use and then send the photos to the woman. “There’s this human community through Making Waves that keeps growing and surprising me, and other people as well,” she says.

Michael Wise II, a self-described “hobbyist photographer” from Fontana who focuses on sports and portrait photography, has spent over a decade covering roller derby. When the pandemic brought events to a halt, he thought of way to keep the community connected.

Wise set up a socially distanced photo shoot for the skaters at the dead end of an industrial street in Fontana. Skaters lined up in their cars, emerging when they reached the designated photo spot, where they would pose in skates and uniforms, often holding signs with hopeful messages on them. He shot from an estimated 30 to 40 feet away, using a lens that he would normally break out for football or soccer games. It took four hours for Wise to shoot about 70 skaters, some of whom came from as far as San Diego. It was so successful that he held subsequent shoots in Long Beach and Oceanside.

socially distanced photography

Michael Wise II

For Wise, these shoots were a chance to use his cameras again and to see people, at least from a distance. “I got to see faces. I got to see other faces besides my family,” he says.

The reaction from the skaters was encouraging too.

“They would thank me for giving them the chance to put their skates on for the first time in a couple months, to put their uniform on, to make a sign. They said that they got to see their friends, even if it was in the car next to them, and they would wave.”

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