On May 26, on the first day of my student internship with Activate Good, I opened the door into the Wade Edwards Learning Lab and tried to figure out how to use this space, normally filled with students and volunteers engaged in tutoring sessions or peer discussions or enrichment activities, as a jumping off point for a photographic documentary on the state of volunteerism during a pandemic.
I didn’t turn the lights on. Instead, I set up my tripod, and slowly worked my way from room to room, turning my camera toward empty chairs, vacant spaces, computers that had been powered down, dust motes caught in the angled sunlight streaming into darkened rooms. It was a sobering experience to consider how the class of 2020 and the rest of this COVID generation have had their futures so abruptly and irrevocably altered.
Over the course of the next eight weeks I photographed more than forty organizations in an attempt to capture the ways in which our best nature responded to this historic time. As I approached each opportunity, I asked myself, “What does volunteerism look like here?” The answer to that question was always different. In some places it looked like the WELL – empty spaces unable to be safely utilized in an era of social distancing. In some places there were no volunteers – only a handful of dedicated staff trying their best to do the work that hundreds had once helped with. In some places where the need was both so fundamental and so great, volunteers found ways to keep distance, took the steps necessary to keep each other safe, continued to feed the hungry and serve the sick. And there were facemasks. Everywhere there were facemasks.
But in no place that I visited was there a loss of hope. Instead I found determination. I found fellowship at six-foot intervals. I found a shared sense of purpose and a commitment to community. And I was honored to photograph it.
Looking back at all that I was able to capture, from farms to food banks, from animal sanctuaries to animal rescues, from planting flags to planting lilies, from individuals seeing a need and making a difference to groups working together to source solutions to problems such as we have not encountered in our lifetimes, I am reminded of that first day. Of that angled sunlight streaming into darkened rooms.
Bisi Cameron Yee