Reporting and writing by Abbey Marshall

Autumn Bland remembers how she felt when she first saw the century-old photos of hospital camps during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918: wide shots of the seemingly endless rows of white tents sprawling across an outdoor field, as mask-clad doctors tended to sick patients. It stirred a sense of dread as the COVID-19 pandemic first began sweeping across the U.S. in March.

These pictures lasted 100 years, telling the tale of a pandemic that has since passed, as another one loomed. As a photographer, she knew she needed to capture the history happening now.

“These photos circulating over the internet in March were so powerful,” Bland recalls. “ I wanted to be able to tell this story of people around me in my own way.”

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That’s when she got the idea for the project, “Portraits of a Pandemic,” which launched in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when shelter-in-place orders were in effect across the country. With her job at a commercial production firm temporarily on hold and her fiance still at work, she recalls seeing the disparities between stay-at-home employees and essential workers firsthand. She wanted to display that duality of life in Akron and the surrounding areas, both the good and the bad.

“The biggest thing I wanted to do was to raise awareness of what people around us are going through and who our neighbors are and what they’re dealing with,” Bland says.

Now, as the nation enters the ninth month of living with the pandemic, Bland is assembling her portraits in a book. The limited-edition book will feature an abridged collection of more than 100 images, one on each page, juxtaposing a black-and-white photo of an essential worker next to a colorful stay-at-home portrait in the same spread.

But Bland’s definition of essential workers has shifted over the past nine months. 

“At first, I was photographing people on the front lines,” she says. “Nurses, letter carriers, transportation workers. 

“But it kept changing. This summer, we saw (the murder of) George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. I just started to change what ‘essential’ meant. Not just what’s essential for the city, but who is essential to the community.”

She photographed artists who painted the Black Lives Matter mural on North Howard Street, poll workers registering eligible voters, activists organizing protests — all people Bland deemed “essential” to Akron’s community during not only the pandemic, but the year of a presidential election.

“These community leaders were not changing what they’re doing, but what they’re doing is that much more important,” she says. “This summer was a bigger push for more boots on the ground.”

Bland has photographed more than 350 people and households across the community as subjects referred others, her 2,500 Instagram followers direct messaged her and her network grew. She has since returned to subjects and taken follow-up images with captions detailing how their stories have progressed over the previous months. She has even organized meal-chains for subjects in need through her Instagram followers.

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“People can not only follow this account and spread the word, but they are doing good,” she says. “I start to realize this is bigger than just me. There’s all these people going through these things, and neighbors who want to help.”

Though the book will only highlight less than a third of her overall images, Bland plans to assemble a longer, full-length photography book when the COVID pandemic ends with captions and stories beyond just the subject’s name, as this one does. The book, which is available for preorder for $50 and will be released early December, is self-published. 

“Pictures are one thing, but I wanted to build a whole community,” she says. “There’s been lots of bad through all this, but good has come out of us all being in this together and coming together.”

Portraits of a Pandemic is available for pre-order for $50. The limited-edition books will be released early December. Photos provided by Autumn Bland.

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

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