BriAnne Wills’ “Pandemic Partners” portrait series captures people coping and coming together in a time of social distance.

Throughout quarantine, photographer BriAnne Wills was curious about how people might have come together despite the need to avoid regular contact. Last July, she began “Pandemic Partners,” a series of studio portraits and interviews sharing the experiences of New Yorkers and their companions amidst social distancing.

While there are some somber notes, Wills’ images, photographed in front of fun, colorful, handmade backdrops reflect a sense of joy and warmth. They are about holding and keeping on – the mix of sorrow, togetherness, connection and survival that make us human. We caught up with Wills to learn more about the project and the people (and pets!) behind it.


Pandemic partners: Stephen and John⁠⁠. ⁠⁠© BriAnne Wills

The Luupe: How did the project start? 

BriAnne Wills: I had been wanting to do a series of studio portraits for a while now but it wasn’t until I was home day in and day out with my pandemic partner (my husband) that I started thinking about who everyone else was spending time with. How were they getting along? How did they help each other through the hardest times? That’s when I decided to make Pandemic Partners the theme of the portraits. The first portrait I made was of a fellow photographer Sunny Shokrae and her family.

Pandemic partners: Sunny, Ryan, and Leo.⁠⁠ © BriAnne Wills

The Luupe: Did you initially anticipate this being a long-term project?

Wills: I didn’t set out with the intention of it being a long-term project. I just knew it was timely and that I needed to do it soon. I had three studio days scheduled over the span of 3 months. Each day a handful of partners came in to be photographed.

The Luupe: Why the decision to photograph people in the studio vs environmental portraits?

Wills: I’ve done so many environmental portraits for my other project Girls and Their Cats so I wanted to try my hand at studio portraits where the environment is controlled. I wanted to give a nod to the family studio portraits of the 90s when families, friends, and couples would get dressed in their best outfits and have a special day out just to take nice portraits.

Pandemic Partners Bethany and Joel⁠⁠ © BriAnne Wills
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The Luupe: We love the Jacqui Jaques backdrops? The bright colors and fun patterns tie in to the sense of joy/ togetherness and hope despite the gravity of the pandemic. What’s the story behind your decision to use them?

Wills: I don’t love shooting on seamless backdrops so I knew I’d want something textured and fun and I remember studio portraits from the 90s having those ridiculous backdrops. I thought it would be cool to do something like that again but with an elevated artistic appeal. This is why I asked Jacqui to collaborate on them. We’ve collaborated in the past on other portrait shoots, for example, this one of Heidi Gardner so I knew she’d be great for this.

The Luupe: Has making these portraits helped you learn anything about yourself, your photographic process, or how you see?

Wills: I tend to be a pretty negative person and I can focus too much on the bad, but this project helped me see that there is still so much good in the world.

Pandemic Partners Bri and GG⁠⁠ © BriAnne Wills

The Luupe: One immediately striking thing about this work is its sense of positivity and hope. So much pandemic related work has been (rightfully) melancholy – and while there are a few somber portraits in this series, it’s mostly optimistic and joyful. 

Wills: I gave everyone the same prompts: Describe how you and your pandemic partner(s) have supported each other during the pandemic. What was the hardest part? What was the best part? Does any memory stand out in particular?

The fact that they answered with positivity and hope just goes to show how resilient New Yorkers can be.

 

Pandemic Partners Liam and Maui © BriAnne Wills
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The Luupe:  What was most surprising or unexpected about working on this series? 

Wills: I was surprised at how people opened up to me, a complete stranger in most cases. It was pretty special to be entrusted with their stories and their image. Chloe (below) shared her near-death experience during the pandemic and how her cat got her through some very dark days. Jose, who is newly sober, has been caring for his elderly parents, specifically his father who has Alzheimer’s. Cinthya had to watch her mother’s funeral through zoom. There were just so many incredible stories that really put things into perspective.

Pandemic Partners Chloe and Moo © BriAnne Wills
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Pandemic Partners: Chelsea and Arpan⁠⁠: © BriAnne Wills

The Luupe: What’s the response been so far to this work?

Wills:  It’s been extremely positive. Those who participated loved the photos and having a tangible marker of this time together and getting to share their experiences. And they have loved reading about their experiences.

The Luupe: Where do you see it going/ ending, etc from here?

Wills: I’d be open to a book, but that wasn’t my intention. I don’t have any more pandemic portraits planned for the future. It was quite an undertaking and I feel good about where it’s ended. But I’d be open to revisiting things if a book was a possibility.