On March 20th, 2020, with the pandemic already overwhelming New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that New York state would go on "PAUSE" to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on the healthcare system. During the next couple of months, photographer Charlie Bennet travelled around Manhattan, capturing the eerie emptiness of the city in a series of haunting photographs.
He eventually teamed up with journalist Helena Gustavsson to provide words to accompany those photos, including a narrative tracking the biggest moments of the first months of the pandemic and interviews with twelve New Yorkers from a variety of industries — an ER doctor, a rabbi, an elementary school teacher, a restaurateur, a subway operator and more — whose lives were upended by the pandemic.
The resulting book is On Pause: Three Months that Changed New York, a time capsule of the start of this painful, unforgettable chapter of modern history. As Bennet wrote in the introduction, "I felt compelled to create this book as a historical document from a very different time, a memory of something that shouldn't be forgotten. I want this book to honor everyone who lost someone or were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."
With the two year anniversary of the "pause" here, Gothamist spoke to Bennet and Gustavsson about their personal memories of the start of the pandemic, reflections on the surreal quality of early pandemic culture, Cuomo's leadership and whether they think the city has changed intrinsically.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)
What are your most vivid memories of the start of the pandemic? Do you have a specific memory of when it really hit you what was happening?
Charlie Bennet: For me it was pretty instant around the end of March, because I walked to Central Park every morning with my dog — and all of a sudden, I realized that I didn't have to stop for a red light, because there were no cars. I live in Midtown, 50th and Third, and it's just always crazy. And all of a sudden, it's like, what's going on? There's nothing. This is like one of these movies we've seen, where there's no cars. I stopped in the middle of the street and pulled out my iPhone and started taking photos of empty avenues, and it was just so bizarre.
That was my first reaction, and then in the next weeks, the fear started. I wasn't very scared of the whole thing in the beginning, because I didn't really know. And then as I was watching the news and starting to find out more, I was spooked like crazy. Me and my wife, like everyone else, started cleaning our groceries before we put them in the fridge and all that kind of stuff. I was terrified of getting sick. And every time I went out to start shooting these images that eventually became the book, it was like I had this conscious conversation with myself: Do I want to go out and risk getting COVID and die? Because that's what I thought in March and early April. Do I really feel that I need to go out and shoot this?
Helena Gustavsson: I was unaware when the whole thing started to unfold. I was covering the primaries that were going on at the time; I was in South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama and eventually Florida. So I was just focusing [on that], driving around, reading about [the election] and then I heard something on the radio in Georgia, and they were talking about how the Democrats were trying to blow this out of proportion and trying to turn this new virus into an election question. Then I flew back from Florida, and I was still not really thinking about it at all on the full flight — and then I think maybe I caught it, because I had symptoms like five or six days later. So for me it started kind of soon that I had to stay in and isolate myself for a while until I could come out again. So that was very strange, just sitting inside and watching: you had less and less people outside, and more and more animals.
What was it like roaming the streets in those early days, Charlie? What surprised you the most as you started to think about what you wanted to document?
Charlie Bennet: I didn't know at the time that this was ever going to be a book. I started taking some pictures with my iPhone and I posted them on social media and they got some attention, probably because it's New York and people are not used to seeing these kinds of photos. That kind of pushed me to start going out and taking this more seriously with a real camera and [trying to] document a little bit more of the city. And I've probably mentioned this a thousand times to people that I've been talking to about this, but it's very surreal to stand for 15 minutes or whatever in the middle of Fifth Avenue at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and not having to worry that you're going to be hit by a car. I shot one image in the intersection of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue — it was just like I put my tripod up there, and I was standing there and just trying to figure out the best angle. I think we're so rooted into [this idea that] you cross the street because you don't want to get hit by a car, and all of a sudden it's an unimaginable experience that is just so weird.
Like I said, I didn't have a plan to make a book at that time — I wish that I had, because I would probably have shot even more then— but then it was a constant struggle: going out, not going out. As we got closer to the end of the shutdown, I think a lot of other people started to feel like we can't just lock ourselves inside all the time, it was starting to get more summer-y and warm.
There were a couple of moments when it was kind of scary, too, because you're used to being out in NYC, and if some weirdo approaches you or attacks you, there's always people around that you can at least try to get help from. But when I was alone, there was one incident at the 59th Street subway station where this crazy guy was walking back and forth on the platform with his steel pipe and he was banging it, and I was pretty scared. It was fine, nothing really happened. But it was just like, what am I going to do if he actually decides to attack me? There were a couple of incidents like that. So there were so many different emotions around this time: fear of meeting people and getting COVID, but also I had this chance to shoot something very unique or experience something very, very unique. So I shot a lot of streets and bridges and train stations, and I was so overwhelmed by these amazing scenes that I was a part of. There were a lot of emotions running through my head at a time. And I think it was very exhausting too, to be honest.
How did you two link up? What did you think when you saw his photos, Helena? And what did it conjure up for you that you wanted to add words to accompany them?
Helena Gustavsson: I'm in Brooklyn, in East Williamsburg, so I didn't have the Manhattan perspective of everything until in April — I think that was the first time I went into the city again. But we knew of each other; we had met a few times, I think, at Scandinavian journalist after-work events. But I realized through social media that Charlie was searching for someone, a journalist who had been here throughout the lockdown. We started talking, and I'd seen a few of his photos before, and I thought they were great and historic documents. Maybe it sounds a bit cliché now, but I wondered: where did the people go? The people who are missing from the photos — what happened to them? Because all of Charlie's photos are taken in Manhattan, and those spaces are almost always filled with people, especially at daytime. And then both of us thought it was important to find a good mix of people to interview, to share a lot of different perspectives.
How did you find those people? And were there any stories that particularly stand out to you, reflecting on it now?
Helena Gustavsson: When we started out, we were more looking in our networks, [asking] if there was anyone working in specific industries that had different experiences. I think the mix we got is good. I think Maillard [Howard], who is an entrepreneur who runs a gym in downtown Brooklyn, I think his story is quite good, because he talks so much about how the community came together and made things work on the sidewalk, when they could go out and do stuff on them. And he brings up the BLM protests that happened in the city [in the summer], and also how he was biking through the city and felt so free when he was alone.
Excerpt from Maillard Howard: During the lockdown, I would bike ride at night. Midnight, one or two in the morning. The streets were so vacant, it was like a ghost town. I would just ride, with the wind and the solitude. I would go where my spirit told me to go. I was euphoric, that's the best work I can think of. I felt like the world was mine.
I experienced the hard reset here in New York. I call it the hard reset, what I saw in the lockdown when spring came and it started to warm up. The way people were interacting with each other when they didn't have to rush to or from work. People were just existing outside, it was beautiful. I think the hard reset was needed. It was amazing until we started realizing, "Oh, shit, how do we pay our rent?"
Charlie Bennet: We very quickly came to the conclusion, when we started discussing the ideas of this book, that because my photos lack people, we wanted to tell the story of where these people were. As of right now, we've seen a few other photographic books that have come out. They're very similar: beautifully photographed in black and white, but it's just empty streets and subways. And for us, it was very important to tell this story of why these streets are empty. Where are all these people?
We started talking about what kind of people do we think would be great to tell this story. We wanted to make sure that we had a representation of what New York City looks like. We have 12 interviews; obviously that is not even cutting close to what we would have liked to share, but it seemed important to find someone who had experienced a very personal loss. A doctor that experienced one of those horrible situations that we saw in the early days of the shutdown. And for me personally, the story of Colleen Smith, the ER doctor at Elmhurst — I've read that story quite a few times, and I cry every time I read it. I was at her hospital, shooting at the COVID department, which was a surreal and scary and overwhelming feeling.
Excerpt from Colleen Smith: Because COVID is so contagious, a patient's family isn't allowed to be with them in the hospital. The nurses and doctors are the ones to hold hands and comfort patients. Before we intubated a patient, we would help them call their family. We made as many calls as they needed, knowing that their chance of death was around 80 percent, and they may never speak to their loved ones again. We would loosen the mask during the calls and hold it to their face until they wanted to talk. Then we would lift it off for a few seconds allowing the patient to say a few words, then press the mask tightly back on their face for them to get some oxygen while their family spoke.
I was there for only maybe five minutes — she wanted to make sure that I didn't get infected — but it was almost like visiting a haunted house. I could feel it in the walls: there was so much pain and sadness sitting there. So I'm really happy with how this book came out, because we were sharing more than just an empty Fifth Avenue or FDR
Seeing the photos and reading some of the stories and some of the summaries of what was happening at the time — which obviously was not that long ago, and yet feels like this weird distant past that, hopefully, will stay that way — conjured up visceral emotions for me. It was difficult putting myself back into that time period. I was wondering if that's the kind of reaction you thought people might have, and if you two had those kind of emotions while putting it together?
Helena Gustavsson: For me, not so much. I think I was more in work mode. But I've heard other people say that they were touched, or got a really good idea of what happened. Since we're both from Sweden originally, we have a lot of people in Sweden who read it, too.
For me, I hoped there would be a mix of the sorrow, struggle, grief and unfairness of that time, but also mixed with the resilience — that's a word that comes up from a lot of people we interviewed. How people really came together and tried to make the best out of this period, both in continuing to live but also in solidarity with each other — more than I've seen in other places — where there wasn't so much whining about having to stay in or wear masks, people just did that. So for me, it was almost more like: wow, this is really cool to hear the strength of people during this.
Charlie Bennet: The way the process worked was we would do research to find people to incorporate into the book, then Helena would do the interview. So I would have some context in terms of what that person experienced before I was doing their portrait, and then I would shoot a second image that was supposed to connect to their story in some way.
And I think there were a couple of times when Helena did the interview and was pretty, I would say, unemotional about the story. And then I would read the story, because I needed to get some background on that person, and I'd be like: whoa, this is a heavy story we're doing on this person. So for me, I had a very different emotional take on these people as I met them to photograph them.
There's a photo montage almost midway through the book of people in masks, and it reminded me that there was a time early on when we were being told not to mask, which is so weird to look back on now. Are there other surreal moments from the early days that pop out at you?
Charlie Bennet: Looking back at this right now, with all that we know today about COVID and the situation, as I mentioned earlier, this over-cautiousness seems almost hilarious today. We didn't know then, but we do now.
Helena Gustavsson: Like the gloves in the supermarket. It is a bit surreal how both experts and non-experts, how different people interpret the same information when you have it in front of you.
Charlie Bennet: Yeah, I mean, I brought my own cleaning spray and sprayed down the Citi Bike before I went out riding around the city. That feels nuts today. But the uncertainty put us in situations where we didn't really know how to deal with it. I think these past two years overall have been very surreal in different ways, an emotional roller coaster. There's so many things that changed on so many different levels. My wife has not gone to work in an office for more than two years now, and this is the new life. I have my photography studio in the same building as we live. We never leave the building. Stuff like that is...I guess that's how it is. There's so many things that came out of this that we adapted to, I guess, because we didn't have a choice.
The name of the book is obviously a reference to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo's PAUSE program. Looking back on it now, what do you think of his leadership during the pandemic?
Charlie Bennet: We were making some pretty serious efforts to include him in the book, in the early stages of the work on this book, and we didn't get any response at all from his office or anyone. Looking back, maybe we're not that sad that didn't really work out. And not just because of what happened [with Cuomo leaving office], but also because we had no intention to make this into a political book. We just wanted to create a timepiece of a very weird and different and unique time in New York. And obviously he had a huge impact on a lot of people, not only in New York, but nationwide.
Helena Gustavsson: There was a rumor at the time that he was going to replace Biden as the presidential candidate. I thought that was one of the funniest things [looking back at it].
Charlie Bennet: That was what people were talking about. He really managed to find this window where he could be the big star. And I think he may have helped some people, or a lot of people, during that time [by providing] some comfort. We were all very unfamiliar with the situation. But we found out when we started to do some some deeper research and started talking to people that a lot of what was mentioned on TV — and what was presented as, 'We're doing everything we can' — may not have been the whole truth. Obviously we know about all the nursing home deaths. And I think Colleen mentioned in her piece that she was really upset when he was saying, 'Everyone has whatever they need right now, we're getting it all to the hospitals,' and she was like, hey we don't even have PPE here. Looking back at it, we could probably have questioned it a bit more, but at the time I think we all embraced it.
Helena Gustavsson: I think it's also [notable] that people still turn to those types of personalities in leadership positions— that they should be quite physically big men, they're tall and kind of pompous and filled with self-confidence. But I do think what was good was the transparency. There were these diagrams you could follow that said this many people were dead, we have this many hospital beds, etc. And also, there was the structure that he was there every day, and every day he came back. I think it was both comforting and also really made people understand the seriousness of it: that even if the numbers went down, it wasn't like this was over now. Especially compared to Sweden, where I think the strategy from the authorities was the opposite, almost obscuring numbers instead.
You write at one point in the book that you ultimately see this as an optimistic story, Helena. What did you mean by that?
Helena Gustavsson: Yeah, that people — as in us, as in society, as in individuals — we adapt, we can make big changes, whether we want to or have to for reasons that are not so simple. But also that people can come together in situations [like this] and we can keep society moving. And a pause, a break, was good for a lot of people, the ones who didn't have people die or didn't get very sick themselves or are not struggling with long COVID. I think for many others, it was a time to also reflect on the future.
Charlie Bennet: New Yorkers are known to be very resilient. That was one of the things that New Yorkers were credited for after 9/11, and I've heard people comparing the lockdown somewhat to 9/11 and to the resilience that New Yorkers had throughout this process — especially when New York was considered the epicenter of the pandemic. We stayed home, we put the masks on, we were helping out as much as we could.
Obviously there's a lot of sadness in the book, but we're also very proud of our city and our fellow New Yorkers. I view this book as a positive book because it also shows we are there for each other when we need to. It's obviously difficult for one of the co-producers of the book to have an objective take on it, but we really wanted people to feel it was not just sadness in this story about a very difficult time.
In 2020, some people very prematurely declared the city dead, and now we have Mayor Eric Adams running around claiming the city is boring. Do you think the city has changed in some intrinsic way? Do you think we are returning to the way things were pre-pandemic, or have some things shifted forever?
Charlie Bennet: It's an interesting question, and I've been thinking about it a lot from a personal perspective — the last six months, the last year — because I don't feel like the city is even remotely the same as it was pre-pandemic. But I'm not sure if it's me that changed and views the city differently, or if the city actually still is weird and different.
Honestly, I still love New York, I've been in New York for 10 years now. And there's parts of New York that I will love for the rest of my life, regardless of where I live. But there's also a part of me that feels very done with New York, because it's been two very tough and heavy years.
I don't think New York is back yet. Looking historically, I think New York is probably going to come back in maybe an evolved shape. It's such an iconic place globally, so I think tourists are going to come back, but I think it's going to be different for quite a while.