One week before what would be my only photoshoot of 2020, I received a phone call that broke me emotionally. My producer, friend and all-around incredible person, Eric, had taken his own life.
Eric had been diagnosed with an aggressive case of ALS last summer, which had taken him from super-fit gym rat to a state in which he was unable to swallow solid foods in a matter of months. While the disease had physically debilitated this man that so many loved, it never took his humor. In his suicide note (which you can read here), he is as proud, funny, and happy as we ever knew him. His death was one out of many good friends and family I lost in 2020, but it was the only time I let myself cry.
What made Eric a great producer was his genuine concern for the well-being of everyone on set. Many of my photoshoots have an open bar, and he would intentionally not drink so that he could be the designated driver. This is not to say he didn’t enjoy a good drink, but that he was willing to forego a good time to make sure that the safety of others was guaranteed.
Who he was sticks with me now more than ever, especially as the world fights the pandemic. For the first time in recent memory, 2020 saw my photography career becoming insignificant. It was not something I could actively use to keep others from experiencing the hardship of the losses that I had suffered. Instead of spending my time doing marketing pieces, I started researching ways that I could help. I promptly signed up for the vaccine trials for Pfizer and Moderna, knowing that as much as I hate needles and blood draws (each trial requires 6-7), I would still be doing my part. Unfortunately, in both cases, I was deemed ineligible since my exposure levels as an advertising photographer brought me in contact with far fewer people than the labs required.
As time passed and the vaccines received their Emergency Use Authorizations from the CDC, we now know that the challenge has shifted to distribution. Again I saw an opportunity to do something to try and help my parents, friends, clients, and even strangers who had been waiting for that glimmer of hope. After contacting a number of state agencies, I was eventually assigned a vaccine distribution pod to volunteer at.
Before my first shift, my mind raced about what it would be like to document so many people getting the vaccine. What would the light look like? What lens would be best? What camera… and then I actually showed up. Any thought of shooting pictures gave way to what I was witnessing. It was not simply a bunch of people getting stuck by a needle in their arm. I was witnessing people – parents, grandparents, and friends getting a chance to live a life where they could breathe again in a world post-COVID-19. It was emotional, with both joy and pain all at the same time. No photo or video shot with any camera or lens could ever show what existed at that moment.
As photographers, our job often involves documenting a significant moment. Depending on your specific genre or niche, that moment can range from a marriage proposal to a game-winning touchdown. Yet sometimes in the constant pursuit of getting the perfect shot, we miss out on actually living the moment. In this particular case, living the moment meant more to me than documenting it ever would.
One mental image that will always stick with me was when an older lady with dark hair in a maroon sedan pulled up. While many would celebrate with huge smiles and almost contagious laughter (some even bring us balloons and cookies), this woman did not. She received the vaccine, took a deep breath, and looked down briefly. After a quick moment, she looked back over just long enough for me to lock eyes with her as she drove to the holding bay line. No words exchanged, I felt that she sat alone in her car because COVID-19 had taken the person next to her.
Later that evening I was pulled aside while delivering some coffee to one of the doctors giving injections and asked if I would like to be vaccinated. I agreed and walked into the lane where they had a nurse, who then asked a few of the standard questions and my arm preference for the injection. While it is very common for those getting vaccines to have their camera out in selfie mode before even getting in line, I just didn’t feel that it was appropriate. Fortunately for this article, my friend and fellow volunteer Tali took a photo that I will forever hold near and dear.
Being safe from fear of this virus is something that I have thought about for months. I was excited for things to get back to normal – to get back behind the camera, to go eat sushi, to have an Old Fashioned at a bar. However, knowing that while this is the future that lies ahead, there is still much work to be done so that we have our loved ones with us to enjoy those times.
With the photo and advertising industries in disarray, now is the time to put down the camera. If you can, I encourage you to volunteer your time to make sure that your friends, family, and fiercest competition are around the next time you pick it up. Many states have opportunities to help with the distribution of the vaccine and trust me, they need it.
Tomorrow, you can be the biggest rock star photographer you want to be, but today… be willing to be a traffic cop. Just remember to dress warm.
In loving memory of Eric, Jamie, Jordan, Joyce, Mr. Riff, and Grandma
About the author: Blair Bunting is an advertising photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This story was also published here.