Shooting a pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across New Mexico and the nation, Searchlight New Mexico launched a series of stories called Hitting Home to chronicle the impact on five New Mexico towns: Shiprock, Gallup, Las Vegas, Carlsbad and Anthony. It was an ambitious project that ended up involving nine reporters, two editors, two contract photographers—and one staff photographer. Me.

August 31, 2021

Don J. Usner

Jess combs her hair at a homeless encampment on the outskirts of Santa Fe.


Shooting a pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across New Mexico and the nation, Searchlight New Mexico launched a series of stories called Hitting Home to chronicle the impact on five New Mexico towns: Shiprock, Gallup, Las Vegas, Carlsbad and Anthony. It was an ambitious project that ended up involving nine reporters, two editors, two contract photographers—and one staff photographer. Me.

August 31, 2021

Don J. Usner

Jess combs her hair at a homeless encampment on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

The sprawling scope of the project was at once daunting and exhilarating. One of my reasons for first getting involved with Searchlight had been to dig deep into specific locales of my home state, take time to get to know its people and develop relationships that would extend beyond brief photographic encounters. Hitting Home represented the apotheosis of that idea. 

Parking lot worshippers at an Easter service at an evangelical church in Hobbs.

I jumped in enthusiastically – if only slightly unsettled by the knowledge that I was walking into a precarious situation. One of my first destinations was Shiprock on the Navajo Nation, a community overwhelmed by sickness and death. There, I heard stories of unstoppable illness, stories like the ones my grandmother used to tell about the flu epidemic of 1918: whole households stricken by disease, spouses and elders dying in a matter of days, residents afraid to venture outside.  

Leo Taugelchee receives a hot meal from a senior center on the Navajo Nation, south of Shiprock.

Tribal authorities called for widespread precautions, including a mask mandate and, eventually, a lockdown. I was impressed by how seriously people took these rules, especially when I photographed a sheep herder wearing a mask as she rounded up her animals far from any town or road. I took heed of these concerns. During my trips to the reservation, I too wore a mask, wiped down my camera gear each day, and consigned my clothing to the laundry as soon as I got home.

Terry, a shepherd on the Navajo Nation at Little Water, tends to a new lamb.

Skateboarders Darren, Akeem, Anthony, Amber, and Caleb, with Shiprock in the background.

Terry, a shepherd on the Navajo Nation at Little Water, tends to a new lamb.

Skateboarders Darren, Akeem, Anthony, Amber, and Caleb, with Shiprock in the background.

My visits to the Navajo Nation were sobering, and so it came as a shock when I ventured on to Carlsbad and encountered residents who believed the danger vastly overstated. At an outdoor park along the Pecos River, throngs of people basked in the sun, vocal in their refusal to wear masks—and extremely angry that New Mexico’s governor had the audacity to tell them to do so. Some people, like the mayor of Carlsbad, donned a face covering while greeting pedestrians on the street. But as soon as a reporter and I climbed into his truck for a tour of the town, he stripped off his mask — which was just when we needed it most.

Members of a right-wing militia group attend an Albuquerque rally protesting New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Visiting Anthony, Las Vegas and Gallup presented similar conundrums. While some people reacted to the pandemic with a fear verging on panic, others scorned the very idea of a virus. It seemed to bring out the worst and best in all of us. In some places, political leaders emerged to rally citizens to care for the sick and feed families isolated by lockdown; in other places, the loudest voices rejected the imposition of any restrictions on their behavior.

Zefren Anderson and a co-worker plant traditional Navajo food crops in Shiprock.

As a photographer, I was conflicted. To make my “subjects” comfortable, I typically maintain a nonjudgmental stance and withhold my personal opinions. Now, I was faced with a dilemma: I wanted to keep myself and everyone around me safe, but I needed to win the trust of the person in front of my lens. I compromised, abandoning my mask outside if it wasn’t the norm while wearing a mask indoors, even when it sowed mistrust.

Nick relaxes at a man camp in Carlsbad after finishing his shift with a fracking crew in a nearby oil field.

During my long drives across New Mexico, I listened obsessively to news stories about the coronavirus and its relentless march. My attention was also riveted by other events: the killing of George Floyd, the presidential election that refused to go away even after it was over, and the toppling of Confederate monuments in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond.

Demonstrators wave flags at a rally celebrating the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, the first Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico, in Alcalde.

The pandemic hung specter-like over everything I witnessed. While passing a cemetery on my way home from Gallup, I noticed a somber burial ceremony with masked mourners gathered beneath ominous clouds. I immediately jumped out of the car and took a photograph that I still find vividly captures the mood of our times. Another time, an assignment to photograph a demonstration against mask mandates produced a slew of images of New Mexico militia members – all of whom bore weapons but were, ironically, masked.

Children bow their heads in prayer at a burial service in Thoreau.

After several months, I was, like most of us, confident that with vaccinations widely available, the pandemic was near its end. Instead, it is resurging – along with divisions how best to contain its spread. From disagreements about wearing masks and closing businesses we’ve now moved to arguments about vaccination mandates.

Dr. Caleb Lauber and Medical Assistant Shaniya Wood on their way to visit COVID-19 positive patients quarantined in a Gallup motel.

Monique Romero waves to spectators driving by the outdoor graduation ceremony at Carlsbad High School.

Dr. Caleb Lauber and Medical Assistant Shaniya Wood on their way to visit COVID-19 positive patients quarantined in a Gallup motel.

Monique Romero waves to spectators driving by the outdoor graduation ceremony at Carlsbad High School.

I have put together a collection of fine art photographic prints that look back on the first 18 months of the pandemic. The prints are on display at El Zaguán at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, 545 Canyon Road in Santa Fe, September 3 through 24. The exhibit opens Friday, 5 to 7 p.m., and offers a chance to pause and reflect on a tumultuous and historic period – even as we here at Searchlight chronicle events going forward.