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Look Through A Photographer's Lens: Bennington County During COVID-19

A highway sign reading "self-isolate 14 days."
Peter Crabtree
A sign in Stamford reminds visitors to Vermont to self-isolate for 14 days.

Diane Arbus once said, “The camera is a kind of license,” and I believed her, allowing me to go places and behave in ways I might not otherwise had the nerve for.

A person with a face cloth covering with a car passing in the background.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
Vermont Department of Transportation employee Bonnie Davis counts cars entering and leaving Pownal on the Vermont-Massachusetts border.

But the camera is also a kind of a shield — something to place between you and others, a tool to both create and avoid intimacy, much like the face mask I wore when asked to photograph Bennington County in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown.

A sign with a 6' on it by a person holding a door open.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
Albert Betit exits the Readsboro General Store, where a sign reminds shoppers to maintain a six-foot distance from each other.

I found my subjects while driving from tiny Readsboro on the Massachusetts border to near-silent Manchester village, but nothing affected me as much as what I witnessed in Bennington. 

An empty street in front of a hotel.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
The Equinox Hotel is shuttered in Manchester.

At The Kitchen Cupboard, a food pantry run by an interfaith group, men and women lined up at a respectful distance shortly before the 5:30 p.m. opening. Nearly all wore masks and thus were anonymous, but even so, several waved me off or beckoned me closer to ask that I not take their photograph. I understood their anxiety, but did they have to feel shame as well?

A person in a hood and ventilator mask picks up a paper bag at a table.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
Clients of The Kitchen Cupboard food pantry pick up groceries in Bennington.

Outside the Bennington Museum, building manager Thomas Moriarty kindly asked me if I wanted to enter the courtyard before he locked the gates, where a sign urged passersby to stay strong during these historic times. Again, it was the push and pull of intimacy and avoidance as I tried to keep six feet away while straining to understand him in the absence of a hearing aid lost while fumbling with a mask.

A black and white image of a poster on a fence with a man exiting.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
Building manager Thomas Moriarty exits the Bennington Museum, where a sign reminds passersby that they are making history.

The governor’s orders kept me out of the Bennington Early Childhood Center, but the director said I was welcome to take photos through a window, which reflected the sunny outdoors. My shadow allowed me to see into a classroom, where a teacher wearing a mask read to a single student, the son of an essential worker. His classmates were at home, being schooled by their parents, some of whom I knew were trying to hold down jobs via Skype and Zoom.

A television with Zoom images and the Vermont state flag.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
The Mount Anthony Union High School Chamber Singers perform "These Green Mountains," the Vermont state anthem, from remote locations as shown on Catamount Access Television in Bennington.

You’d think a camera might have brought me closer to that moment, but just as often, as you struggle to find the right framing and exposure, it takes you out of it. It’s not until later, when editing a day’s work, that you realize what you’ve experienced. There, behind a mask, through a lens, on the other side of a window, an aging man saw a vulnerable, lonely boy. He is many of us.

A child and woman in a mask in a classroom.
Credit Peter Crabtree / For VPR
A lone teacher and student are the sole occupants of a classroom at the Bennington Early Childhood Center, which remains open for the children of essential workers.

Peter Crabtree lives in North Bennington and serves on the board of the Bennington Early Childhood Center. To see more of his work, please visit www.petercrabtreephoto.com.

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