Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Frontline Workers: A Q&A with Photographer Mangue Banzima and Director Law Chen

For an intensely challenging few months from March through May 2020, New York City took on a new identity: the epicenter of the coronavirus. However, despite the dangers of the pandemic, numerous visual storytellers stepped outside the safety of their own homes to help give shape and meaning to this perilous time. We asked two of these creators—street style photographer Mangue Banzima and film director Law Chen—about their experiences capturing the heroic humanity of the moment through stories of brave individuals, including themselves.

Photographs of Frontline Workers by Mangue Banzima

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: The most essential workers in the story of COVID-19 are frontline workers. If not equally as important, a close second are imagemakers and visual storytellers who translate the emotion, courage and humanity of the people at the heart of this crisis. Tell us about the genesis of your recent projects covering frontline workers?

MANGUE: Image-making during this pandemic is a challenge and there are a lot of risks, but I do it because of the frontline workers and essential workers. I used to be one of them. I’ve been there before. I know what it takes to work hard and earn a living. I know what it takes to pivot during challenging and unprecedented times like these. I've always wanted to use my talent to serve the public, change lives, promote others, and put a smile on faces. I was able to accomplish that each time I went out there to shoot content. 

I remember driving on Park Avenue, stuck in bike traffic with more than a dozen delivery men of color—mostly Spanish and African men—in front of me with their boxy square backpacks rushing to deliver food. I said to myself, our society needs to change and needs to respect humans. I keep recalling the negative tone we hear from our leaders in association with comments about immigrants and I ask myself what America would be without immigrants? What would happen if immigrants weren't able to take these essential jobs and feed us during this isolation? What happens if police officers and firefighters are laid off and we don't keep supplying PPE to our healthcare workers? This reminded me of where everything began for me as far as photography: simply the love for life and humanity. 

LAW: When the pandemic hit New York ,I never once thought of myself as essential, definitely not compared to the frontline healthcare, food, and delivery workers. I'm just a director and people don't depend on me to survive or look to me for help. But, as the truly essential risked their lives every day, their stories were left untold and lost. I felt like it was my responsibility, but not obligation, to tell some of those stories. I've been biking in NYC for the past decade, often alongside delivery workers, and I've always been captured by their stories. As they risked their health every day delivering food to people's couches, I felt this was the right time to highlight just how essential they are and hear what they have to say. 

I dusted off my camera, and with masks and gloves on, went out to find them in the wild. After a long and difficult search for delivery workers willing to speak to me on the phone, I was finally able to put together Delivered. 886 was a NYC Chinese restaurant started by friends of mine that was forced to shut down during the pandemic and found a way to reopen, raise money, and donate meals to healthcare workers. Vimeo reached out to me about an initiative called Stories in Place and was looking for stories of small businesses coping during this time. 886's journey fit perfectly, so I began safely documenting their day to day, making bentos and delivering several hundred meals a day to NYC hospitals. I wanted to make a film that not only documented how they managed to survive, but also explore their internal struggles as they navigated difficult decisions during the crisis. 

The short filmDelivered by Law Chen

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Describe the atmosphere of making work right now? How does shooting content related to an international pandemic differ from your past projects? Are there any similarities?

MANGUE: About 95% of the work I post on social media is about diverse fashion-forward individuals on the streets. The other 5% is about sociopolitical activity, and to be honest, our healthcare workers’ scrubs were better than the Dior and Chanel outfits I see at New York Fashion Week. It's not about a designer or brand; it's about humanity, visual storytelling and the confidence, joy and positivity each subject brings to society on the streets of this amazing city. 

Shooting content during this pandemic requires shooting both negative and positive spaces. Negative space being an empty city—Times Square with no human beings, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stairs with just pigeons on the steps, Grand Central Station with just military personnel, and the loneliness, risk and sadness on people’s faces in empty subway cars and platforms. My heart goes out to those that lost their loved ones. 

The positive space is inspiring and beautiful. To see, support and connect with the essential workers, our heroes, and healthcare workers. I remember getting several Direct Messages from nurses asking me to visit their hospitals; seeing and capturing healthcare workers wearing their own homemade masks and protective gear; volunteer healthcare workers telling me they haven't slept in days; and, also, seeing and capturing some really graphic moments of this pandemic.

LAW: The atmosphere of making anything during the pandemic is very isolating. Filmmaking is a team effort. There's a reason you have a cinematographer, producers, camera team, lighting, sound, etc. Not only are you working with the best experts and specialists in their field, but they each contribute their talent to the overall vision. When deciding to make a film during the pandemic, I didn't feel it was right to ask someone else to risk their health to help me create something. So, I had to take it upon myself to take on all the roles and direct, shoot, produce, etc. It wasn't easy when you are used to having dozens of people supporting you, but the isolation meant I was able to create something more personal and more intimate compared to my usual work. While this is new for me, many documentary filmmakers take a similar approach to capture moments that are hard to access, private, or dangerous. 

Photographs of Frontline Workers by Mangue Banzima

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What has the response been to your work? Has engaging in a larger global issue with sociopolitical implications impacted how you think about future work?

MANGUE: It’s an honor and I am grateful for getting positive responses. I’ve been asked to participate in future group shows, my photos have been selected for a book about COVID-19, and I get a lot of requests from publications around the world. But, I’m hesitant about sharing my work. For me this moment is bigger than money. I have posted less than 50% of what I have in my archive. I am aware some people may receive it differently and each time I post sociopolitical content there are always ramifications.

LAW: I've been conflicted about doing projects during this time. Despite wearing PPE and distancing, is it right that I'm putting myself and possibly others at risk by leaving home and creating? But the response has been overwhelming, and people have appreciated being able to get a glimpse into the lives of restaurant and delivery workers. It certainly is only a small slice of a much larger story, but nonetheless a time capsule of this moment that we can look back on. Creating these pieces has allowed me to further explore sociopolitical themes that I care about: the untold stories of immigrants, Asian Americans, and pursuers of the American Dream. These have all been common threads in my work and will continue to be emphasized further as I create films in the future. 

The short film886 by Law Chen

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, what are you working on now or what do you hope to work on when we settle into a new normal?

MANGUE: The future is about books, art exhibitions, and speaking engagements I have been asked to participate in, as well as photos that are ready to be sent off to print and frame when NYC opens in June. I also want to keep documenting our behaviors post COVID-19. On Memorial Day Weekend, I went out on the streets and documented those who weren't social distancing in Prospect Park, Central Park, stoops in Brooklyn and many other areas. It's always a challenge when we are mentally divided about the facts surrounding the coronavirus. 

LAW: Before the pandemic hit, I was writing and preparing to direct a narrative feature about a Chinatown delivery man at a NYC Chinese restaurant, so the two short docs I made fit right into this world. As we settle into the new normal, I hope to continue working on that project with a better perspective. 

Photographs of Frontline Workers by Mangue Banzima

Watch Delivered by Law Chen: https://vimeo.com/410720817

Watch 886 by Law Chen: https://vimeo.com/412396748

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