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Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. 

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

In the past year the face covering became a part of most outfits and sometimes a statement in itself, as New Yorkers found a way to express themselves even through their concealment. Masks were needed for basic protection, but gradually have been transformed into more complex objects with multiple functions: message communication; expressing one’s mood, personality, ethnicity or community; signifying respect or recognition, indicating a political stance.

Francesca Magnani, “I will breathe,” George Floyd Memorial, Cadman Plaza Park, Brooklyn, (June 4, 2020)
Francesca Magnani, “Stop Killing Black People” Barclays Center, Brooklyn, (May 29, 2020)

With a background in classics and anthropology I have long been interested in issues of identity and self-representation and in how people live and manage everyday challenges. As a street photographer I have followed with curiosity how people cope with the pandemic, dealing with the unknown. I was here on September 11 and during Sandy’s aftermath, and last March I saw in people’s expressions and movement their anguish, their incredulity, and confusion that matched my own. I walked around different New York neighborhoods every day and noticed the progression in more and more people starting to wear their feelings on pieces of decorated cloth.

Francesca Magnani, “Metropolitan/Lorimer stop, Brooklyn,” (November 21, 2020) “I make them myself. I used to belly dance a lot.”
Francesca Magnani, “333,” Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, (May 25, 2020) “I just cut out the hem earlier today, before leaving the house, and made the mask with the extra fabric.”

My project of documenting people wearing masks is ongoing, and so far it comprises about 600 images. This small object has become a symbol of this time. Some images from the series have recently been acquired by the Smithsonian Museum as part of the first set of multiple pandemic-related digital acquisitions. Two COVID-19 related photographs are part of New York Responds: The First Six Months at the Museum of the City of New York, and one (May 10) mask was part of the #ICPconcerned group show.

Francesca Magnani, “Black Lives Matter,” Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, (June 5, 2020) @toureshow

When possible, I talk to people about the masks they wear since they often have a story. I have noticed that people are attached to the narrative of how the mask was made or chosen. Because I never plan these portraits, each photographed mask reminds me of a specific route I walked during the past year; it marks a point in my history when I was learning to navigate the pandemic and found sparks of connections that help me feel grounded and human.

Francesca Magnani, “Fauci” 10th Avenue, NYC, (May 21, 2020)
Francesca Magnani, “This was preventable” St. Marks Avenue, Brooklyn, (June 2, 2020)
Francesca Magnani, “Don’t Drink Bleach,” East River, (August 27, 2020)
Francesca Magnani, “Fuck 2020,” Delancey Street, NYC, (February 11, 2021) “It’s a DJ. Not everybody knows him, but everyone knows one of his songs. It is called “Turn down for what” — you probably heard it.”
Francesca Magnani, “Smush Parker Elite,” Coney Island, Brooklyn, (May 24, 2020) “It is my brand. I used to be a basketball player and now I am retired.” @smush_parker_elite
Francesca Magnani, “Il Bel Paese,” Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (November 10, 2020) “Yes, I am part of the Giglio Feast every year since I was little.”
Francesca Magnani, “The new normal,” Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, (June 10, 2020) “I thought this is the new normal, and so I drew it following my own anatomy because I am an artist you know.” @galusaurus
Francesca Magnani, “Almost Feathers,” Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, (June 29, 2020) @visual_soul
Francesca Magnani, “BLM,” Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, (March 11, 2021) “I wrote it on every single mask since last summer” @lindsay.messoline

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Francesca Magnani

Francesca Magnani is a Brooklyn-based Italian photographer, writer, teacher, and translator. Born and raised in Padua, she arrived in NYC as a Fulbright graduate student in 1997. Since then she has been...

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