Photos: Portrait project highlights community connections during the pandemic

A woman wearing hospital scrubs stand outside her home.
Dr. Lourdes Gomez Villaume is photographed with her husband Dr. Frank Villaume IV and their two children. "The hospital is always a scary place but right now it's an especially lonely, scary place not just for the patients but also for all the staff," she shared in the pandemic portrait project, "By a Thread." "I fear that people will return to their self-centered ways and forget the vulnerable, forget the suffering and forget that feeling of just wanting to help."
Courtesy of Katie Howie

In her project titled “By a Thread: Pandemic Portraits,” Katie Howie has been exploring what it means to be human during the pandemic. The project includes portraits of more than 115 people in the Twin Cities area. 

More importantly, Howie describes the project as a living history because the people she photographs also share thoughts about their lives over the last year. 

A Metro Transit bus driver describes the lessons she’s learned from this time. A nurse practitioner reflects on the pandemic’s toll and the memories it brings up from her work during early days of the AIDS crisis.

“It's people sharing their heart at this particular point in our collective experience and our history,” Howie said. 

The St. Paul-based photographer began the project last March when Gov. Tim Walz announced the state’s first stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Howie saw social media posts from friends who are hospital workers looking for N95 masks. That inspired her to capture the bravery and heroism of the essential workers. Since then she’s expanded the project to include others in the community affected by the pandemic. 

Three people stand outside their home.
Lauren Cox, Metro Transit bus operator, is photographed at home with her husband Eric Sr., a fare collections specialist, and their daughter, Ciree, who is a college student. "The pandemic has forced us to find new ways to survive. And not just survive, but find new ways to be grateful. The pandemic has shown us that cleanliness (disinfecting, sanitizing, washing your hands, covering your mouth or sneeze) is not just an option, it's a necessity. Unfortunately, I've seen firsthand that common sense is uncommon to many and quite disrespectful."
Courtesy of Katie Howie

“Meeting people and hearing their stories, it's been so uplifting,” Howie said. “Because even in the midst of all these hardships there’s much resiliency.”

Her portraits include doctors, teachers, bus drivers, artists and others standing outside their homes. Some were friends, but many have been strangers who were referred to her from “somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody.” However, through the project, those strangers have become friends. They stay in contact and Howie looks forward to getting together with them again, when it’s safe to do so. 

These connections are what inspired her project’s title because “we’re all connected by a thread,” the 40-year-old said. 

When asked what it means to be human at this time, Howie said that it means to be vulnerable and care about other people. “During the pandemic, you wear a mask and stay at home so that people you don’t know are safe,” she said.

“That's the other thread in all of this is these people all care so much about their fellow human,” Howie said. “They care that they take on great risk to themselves and that's been so inspiring to me.”

A man sitting in a wheelchair
Thabiso Rowan, options counselor for a statewide disability resource network. "This year I have grown a lot. I feel like some people have been consumed by fear, while others have taken the time during the Pandemic to focus on their own goals and dreams. I have spent most of the Pandemic focusing on my dreams."
Courtesy of Katie Howie
A man and four children photographed through a window on a porch.
John Tillander, a special education teacher, poses for a portrait at his home with his children. "My job right now is equal parts teacher, advocate, and counselor. Helping students cope AND learn is a unique challenge. I've actually had to work longer hours and remain in 'school mode' much later into my day. My students are on my mind a lot of the time."
Courtesy of Katie Howie
Three people standing outside.
Vanessa Moralez, a 911 dispatcher, at home with her sons Purnell Moralez-Barnes and Montez Moralez. "I enjoy meeting new people and hanging out with friends and family. At the same time, I am very much an introvert and absolutely love my quiet time by myself. I choose to be quiet in a world that won't stop talking. The pandemic has taken away many of my opportunities to socialize whenever I want. Sometimes I feel I have no choice but to be alone. "
Courtesy of Katie Howie
A woman holding a puppy.
Anne Rumsey, a nurse practitioner who works exclusively in COVID-19 care. "I have never experienced the devastation that any disease has brought to people's lives as I have over the last 10+ months in dealing with COVID, even with my experience during the early days of AIDS. The insidious nature of this pandemic has left no one in its path untouched, including myself."
Courtesy of Katie Howie
A group of people holding signs that read "justice for Floyd."
Val Rubin-RaShaad, executive director of Youth and AIDS Projects, at home with her fiancé Howard Crutcher, her children, grandchildren and other family members. "I will continue to have 'the talk' with my young son and grandsons. I hope we can get to a world where we won't have to do that anymore. But. I worry every day for the safety of my children. Before the death of Mr. Floyd I had my grown children share their GPS location at all times so I knew they were alive."
Courtesy of Katie Howie
A man stands in front of a woman and child dressed in costume.
Matt Dawson, a stagehand, is photographed at home with his partner Sarah Gioia, and their child, Calvin. "I’ve been working for 18 years, developing skills, growing a network, building a reputation for myself in live theater, and it’s all gone now. I can’t get an equivalent job somewhere else. I can’t scrape together gigs and call in favors and go freelance. I can’t relocate -- there’s nowhere in the country, there’s not another place in the world that I could move to and start again. Live entertainment is gone. The entire industry that I’ve worked in for my entire adult life is gone. It’s smoke in the wind now."
Courtesy of Katie Howie
A woman standing outside a house.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan at her home. "I think we sometimes forget to remember that we are all human beings doing the best we can and that no matter what, we can all start each day and each interaction with empathy and understanding. ... We're in this together, Minnesota."
Courtesy of Katie Howie

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