By Emma Castleberry
Two Asheville photographers are working to document the historic era of COVID-19 in our community. Brittany Sisk, owner and principal photographer at AshevilleWeddingPhoto.com and AshevilleFamilyPhotography.com, was inspired to start her Pandemic Porch Portrait Project as a means of survival during a financially trying time. “The wedding and portrait photography industry has been financially decimated by this pandemic,” Sisk says. The project began with Sisk’s friends and neighbors and rapidly expanded to include photojournalistic portraits of families within the Asheville community, paying special tribute to the heroes like medical and emergency professionals. It then expanded further to include profiles of small business owners and nonprofits. “Almost overnight, it took on a life of its own,” says Sisk. “It’s been a little overwhelming and unbelievable.”
Sisk says the pandemic portraits are, obviously, very different from the more fine-art images she’s used to creating with her clients. “These portraits are a more raw, photojournalistic look at my community,” she says. “Locations aren’t pre-selected; timing for the best, most flattering lighting isn’t considered; nothing is perfectly styled or posed. The idea for the project is to capture your family or business/organization as you really are, right now, in this moment. As a professional photographer, I believe that it is my responsibility to document this moment in the living history of our community.”
When Brad Wilson learned about Sisk’s photo project, COVID-19 was on the rise. “As a healthcare provider,” he says, “I was uncertain about how bad the outbreak would be, if would I contract the COVID-19 virus and, if I did, would I survive? I felt that this photo project would not only give me the opportunity to support a local artist, but would also give me and my family an opportunity for what could be our last family photo together.” Wilson, who has grown up in Asheville and seen it through many eras of change, says projects like this one are vital pieces of history. “This photography project will be a catalogue of living images representing the diversity and inclusion that is the Asheville community,” he says.
Heather Burditt has been a photographer for twenty years, but she had just started live music photography before the pandemic hit. Now, she has partnered with the WNC Original Music Facebook group to document musicians in isolation at home. The photo-journalism project is free of charge for the musicians and Burditt includes a short interview with the photos. “I wanted the photos to be relatable but also have a documentary feel which is why I chose black-and-white,” she says. “Sometimes they smile, or look away, or engage with an animal or child, just like in person. This project has allowed musicians to be seen and heard in a different way.”
Zachary McMakin, the singer/guitarist in Cloud City Caskets, was one of Burditt’s subjects. “Heather’s project allows musicians to say, ‘Hey, we are still here,’” he says. “It’s also a quick glimpse of the other side of musicians you never see unless you are personal friends with them—their home life. A lot of us learned to play and sing on porches, so in a lot of ways this is getting back to basics. But mostly, her porch photos are a snapshot of how everyone in the world is being forced to look at everyone else: from a distance.”