Kay Hickman, “In Queens, a man asks people and cars that pass by for financial help” (2020) (all images courtesy New-York Historical Society)

Earlier this spring, writer Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman embarked on what some might consider a daunting journey. As New York City faced record numbers of COVID-19 infections, the pair traversed the five boroughs to craft a multimedia portrait of a city navigating crisis. According to the New York Times, Powell and Hickman spent two days interviewing and photographing Powell’s friends and acquaintances about their experiences amid the pandemic. Each visit was conducted from a safe distance — through windows or on stoops — and the pair got around with the help of a driver they hired, Hany Nashed. The resulting exhibition, Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine, presented in the courtyard of the New-York Historical Society, points to both the grave challenges faced by New Yorkers, and their resilience.

Kay Hickman, “Leticia Lucero, working from home, sits at her
window” (2020)

“Honestly, motivation is difficult,” explains Leticia Lucero in a statement shared in the exhibition. A community organizer who works at the Stapleton NYCHA houses in Staten Island, Lucero and her immediate family members are all essential workers, meaning they witnessed firsthand the effects of the virus, and lived daily with the anxiety of contracting and spreading the virus to loved ones (thankfully, none of them have tested positive). Her words, which are featured prominently above images of her standing on her porch on Staten Island and looking out from a window, reveal the intense emotional strain and fatigue endured by many of the city’s essential workers. On either side of this pairing, images of empty shopping centers, bus stops, and a lightly trafficked bridge amplify the stark emptiness of local streets in a normally bustling city.

Kay Hickman, “Catherine ‘Cat’ Carnes, a registered nurse from Oklahoma, came to Brooklyn to volunteer after seeing “the news day after day and watching the nurses literally cry out for help in New York City” (2020)

Elsewhere, Hickman’s photos of essential workers, passersby, and unhoused people cast a heroic lens on some of the city’s most at-risk communities. Her images are contemplative and tender, and reflect her commitment to “challenging monolithic representation” via documentary photography. She and Powell recently partnered on another New York Times story, which likewise portrays the pandemic with nuance and intimacy, putting faces and names to statistics that can sometimes feel surreal.

Kay Hickman, “Tanya ‘Mama Tanya’ Fields stands outside her Bronx apartment. Her entire family had been exposed to the coronavirus. (L-R) Lola, Taylor, Chase, Hunter, Mama Tanya, Thomas, Trist’ann” (2020)

As one of the first new institutional exhibitions to open in the city since March, Powell and Hickman’s project may also offer a roadmap for museums planning to reopen later this month, following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that indoor cultural institutions may reopen starting August 24, provided they follow a variety of safety measures including operating at 25% capacity. Beyond taking place outside, using weather-proofed reproductions and a timed-entry system, Hope Wanted features oral histories that visitors can access via their own cell phones. The exhibition’s audio and text will be available in English and Spanish, and free masks will be available for any visitors who don’t have one (face coverings are required for entry).

Kay Hickman, “A closed and empty 125th Street, a street usually
packed with people shopping in the many stores along the street.”

As budgets continue to remain tight for many across the city, Hope Wanted offers a crucial free opportunity to ruminate on not just on art, but also local history in the making.

When: Hope Wanted continues through November 29
Where: New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way/77th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan)

More info at New-York Historical Society 

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Dessane Lopez Cassell

Dessane Lopez Cassell is a New York based editor, writer, and film curator, as well as the former reviews editor at Hyperallergic. You can follow her work here.