Akron Photographer Captures the Duality of the Pandemic in a New Book
Akron photographer Autumn Bland has spent much of the pandemic taking people’s photos.
From essential and frontline workers to families posing on their front porches, “Portraits of a Pandemic” has turned into a months-long project documenting life during COVID-19.
In December, Bland will release a book with more than 100 photos from the collection.
I first met Autumn Bland back in May when I tagged along on a series of photoshoots at people’s houses.
“I have a really long lens on here by design so I can shoot from really far away,” Bland said as she photographed a family from across their front lawn.
The project snowballed, with dozens and dozens of people reaching out wanting their photos taken.
Soon she started doing multiple shoots in Cleveland, Akron, Canton and all over the region.
She captured first responders posing outside hospitals and frontline workers who couldn’t work remotely.
She also photographed the “new normal” for people now stuck in their own homes. Like the Dillon family outside Rootstown in Edinburg Township. I saw Brothers Dennis and Terry Dillon wheel out an ultralight airplane from a barn for their portrait.
Dennis Dillon is close with all his neighbors. It’s easy when they’re all family. Multiple generations have properties here; they call it “Dillonville.”
“Out here our lives haven’t changed. I’m retired now, and the pension check keeps coming in. We don’t have to go anywhere to amount to anything. So, I would say ‘no’ our lives haven’t changed a whole lot," Dennis Dillon said. "But I know a lot of other people’s lives have changed when you lose your job and the money. That’s the tough thing.”
Bland said stories like this one and from first responders on the front lines, led her to turning the project into a book.
“You know something more tangible. Something that people can actually hold in their hands and look through this imagery and really understand it. As opposed to scrolling through your phone,” she told me not long after the book was finished.
In addition to capturing first responders and people quarantining at home, Bland spent much of this summer and fall photographing community members and organizers in the region protesting racial injustice and violence in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I was so proud to see so many people of the community really stepping up, even what they were already doing. Stepping it up to even the next level," Bland said. "I really wanted to document that. Highlight these people in that way. And it felt like their jobs were very important.”
She also partnered with CANAPI, an LGBTQ advocacy non-profit, to photograph portraits of PRIDE during the pandemic.
“I think I have four PRIDE images in there. The social justice, the community workers, those are absolutely in (the book) as well.”
Having been on more than 300 photoshoots, she said it wasn’t easy to choose which photos made it in the book.
“It was nerve-racking to figure out, ‘How the heck do I narrow this down?’ Because they were all so important to me,” Bland said.
The book captures the duality of the pandemic, how many people’s lives have shifted to staying at home, while others continue to work on the frontlines.
“There’s so many different worlds out there, and we’re just living in the middle of a million different realities. And you don’t really know that until you stand in somebody’s front yard and start talking to them,” Bland said.
Photographs of people at their homes are in color. First responders, and frontline and essential workers are photographed in black and white.
“I am doing like a side-by-side. When you look at the book there’s a full page of a family staying at home or a person that’s staying at home and then a full page of an essential worker. Every time you turn (the page) it’s a two-page spread, and it’s just one image per page. It’s meant to really draw you into the imagery,” she said.
Bland is self-publishing the first edition. And she expects to hand deliver some copies around Akron to people who are featured in the book.
“What gives me a little peace is knowing that when this pandemic is finally over, whenever that is, that I’m going to create a full, comprehensive book that will include all the participants, all the stories, all the follow-ups," she said. "But there’s no end in sight right now. And that’s going to be a huge undertaking. So, I really wanted this smaller collection to come out this year.”