Capturing Kindness During Crisis (Signs of the Times in Toronto)
Documenting Our Community and Covid-19 via Street Photography
Article and images by Shawna Cohen aka @co.snaps
Sleep while you still can, they told me. Kiss your career goodbye, they warned. Ah, the things you hear when you’re pregnant. Turns out, what I missed most after having a baby was simply brunching and wandering the city: Queen West on a lazy Saturday, where hours of window shopping would inevitably lead to drinks on the Drake Hotel patio. Sunday-morning spin class on College Street, followed by a visit to Soundscapes for the latest hard-to-track-down album. Since the day I escaped from suburbia as a college grad, I’ve had a love affair with Toronto. And now, thanks to COVID-19, I’m rekindling that flame.
The pandemic has pushed people out of jobs, forced frontline workers to risk their own health and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s scary and sad. No one is immune from the stress and anxiety that stems from not knowing when we can once again gather with friends or go to work. Countless people are worried about losing their business, losing a loved one, paying rent. At the same time, the crisis has led others—those privileged enough to have food to eat and a roof over their head—to slow down. Suddenly, many of us have time on our hands to cook from scratch, take up a hobby or in my case, wander the streets.
I’ve never been much of a baker or knitter but as a journalist, I’ve spent my entire career reporting on news and trends. So it was only natural for me to want to capture these unprecedented circumstances—this time, with some help from my camera. Over the past couple of months, I’ve visited various neighbourhoods to document city life during the pandemic. There are handmade rainbow signs hanging in windows—a sign of hope, of what’s to come; colourful sidewalk-chalk art that’s at once heartbreaking and beautiful; heart-shaped stickers with words like “together” posted on graffiti-clad payphones. Used face masks and rubber gloves litter the streets, while yellow caution tape is a more common playground sighting than hopscotch and dodge ball.
Messages of positivity prevail: “Be kind to yourself,” “We’re in this together,” “Call your Grandmother!,” “I am secretly succeeding.” (I was most moved by an old Parkdale restaurant with boarded-up windows, the words “See you soon!” standing out in spray paint.) Others are more candid: “Stay inside,” “Hand sanitizer sold here,” “No cash on premises.” There are hints of kindness: “If you are unemployed and need an outfit cleaned for an interview, we will clean it for free!” reads a sign at a Roncesvalles dry cleaner. At a Vaughan-Oakwood variety store: “Free face mask for any customer 70 yrs+.”
While the streets are empty, the city eerily quiet, there’s a real feeling of community. Those not wearing face masks smile at one another. Parents give each other knowing glances while chasing their tantrum-throwing toddlers down the driveway. Strangers say hello to passers-by from their front porch. Walking around the city, witnessing these acts of human connection, I’m reminded that we are not alone. Despite our differences, Torontonians are united now more than ever: in hope, despair and a desire for normalcy.
By Shawna Cohen aka @co.snaps