Brandon Dill photographs Ava Miller-Montgomery, 13, at the Memphis Slim House in Soulsville. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

I love people, and miss the almost daily contact with new folk that my job as a photographer afforded me. That privilege largely went away with the pandemic.

I found a way to connect. I set up a contactless, walk-through portrait studio on the sidewalk in front of my house for anyone who cared to stop by.

I resorted to making photos this way because of COVID-19, but I want to make portraits that are not about the virus and its impact on our lives. The booth portraits were offered over four weekends in April, with the hope they would provide a small escape for everyone who played along. Making them made me happy. It was a way for us to come together while we’re forced to stay apart.

This has grown into a partnership with local nonprofits Memphis Slim Collaboratory and JUICE Orange Mound, which host the photo booth with the aim of supporting community spirit and helping combat the feeling of isolation so many are experiencing. Everyone receives a free photo, but donations are accepted with all proceeds benefiting the host organization.

Isaac Tate fills out a card while at the Social Distance Photo Booth that photographer Brandon Dill set up in partnership with JUICE Orange Mound. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50.

Using telephoto lenses, I make portraits that feel close and intimate in spite of the distance between us. After the shoot, I cut out full-length photos of the people who pose in the booth and add them to an ever-growing panorama showing Memphians standing together side by side.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The people who stroll through the booth need no encouragement to show how they’re feeling. They’re eager to share and connect, excited to be seen. While so much of our normal lives has disappeared, there’s a clear and persistent strength seen in the portraits that speaks firmly, “I’m here!”

In collaboration with MLK50, the photo booth has added a “ballot box” feature, encouraging participants to fill out a comment card responding to one of three prompts: 

  • If I could change something about _____ it would be _____.
  • What is at stake for you (your family, your community…) in this moment?
  • How are you feeling in this moment (hopeful, anxious, resilient…)?

The thoughtful heartfelt responses revealed a complex mix of concern and aspiration, strain and resilience.

I’m so grateful for the trust of everyone who shared with me at the photo booth, and for the hosts of the photos featured here; Memphis Slim Collaboratory and JUICE Orange Mound. Thank you.

Aniysha Youngblood, photographed in Soulsville. “I’m feeling discouraged at the state of our city. I see pebbles of hope knocking into brick walls. I hope that our pebbles come together to form a boulder to knock down these walls. It starts at home.”

Carly, Lewis, and Alden Lyons, photographed at Soulsville. “Our son’s future is at stake in this moment and [we] remain hopeful.”

Isaac Tate, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change something about Orange Mound, it would be the feeling of community. I used to look at the Mound as the last real community where everyone worked together. I miss that.”

ToNaya Gulley, photographed in Soulsville. “In this moment, I feel hopeful because the youth are passionate. Resilient because our elders are steadfast and share their wisdom. Hopeful because I am confident in the work that we are putting in for the community.”

Eric Purnell, Sr., photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change anything about me, it would be my life.”

Bella Golightly, photographed in Soulsville. “If I could change something about the world, it would be making people more willing to share.”

Brandi Miller-Montgomery and her daughters, Madison, 15 (left) and Ava, 13 (right;), photographed in Soulsville. “During this pandemic, as a whole, we are nervous and hopeful. Hopeful of the things to come and the joy of being able to reunite with friends and family we haven’t been able to visit. Nervous about how much longer this pandemic will keep us separated.”

LaKeshia Jones, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change anything about today, it would be a cure for this virus. I need a job to pay my rent. Today I feel hopeful.”

Karla Davenport, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change something about me, it would be my employment status to employed.”

Candace Tate, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change something about my old neighborhood, Orange Mound, it would be to restore its communal pride and dignity. Restore its beauty, reduce the blight and economic depression.”

Kevin Brown, photographed in Orange Mound. “Freedom”

Bregetta Tate, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change something about Memphis, it would be the poverty level. What is at stake for my family is stable finances. At the moment, I am stressed but hopeful.”

Edward Delaney, photographed in Orange Mound. “If I could change anything about today, it would be a smile on everyone’s face.”

Vanessa West, her husband, Jason, and children, Latham, 2, and Camren, 10; photographed in Soulsville. “When people look back in history and ask, ‘How could people just allow a [fascist] to take over!?’ We’ve had that question answered for four years now. We can’t afford another four.” 

Sierra Wallace, photographed in Soulsville. “For myself, my family and those in the community that look like me, our very existence, as well as our collective futures [are] at stake. As a combined community, we must [band] together and help those that cannot help themselves and whose voices need to be amplified. #BLM”

Brandon Dill is a photographer based in Memphis. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, WIRED, Forbes, USAToday, MSNBC.com, Bloomberg and others.


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