This LA photographer turned coronavirus into a portrait of our times
A year ago, Saam Gabbay spent the night of his birthday on the desert rocks of Joshua Tree listening to Allan Holdsworth’s “Questions” on repeat, completely alone, sobbing.
Gabbay is a commercial photographer and director whose superpower is enabling and coordinating a crowd into a community, of finding a way to foster a “What if?” moment. He is the spider of many webs; being alone is not his thing. This year’s birthday was going to be different.
Then the coronavirus hit L.A. With everyone sheltering at home, Gabbay wouldn’t be able to gather his community to him. “People are on lockdown, no one’s going to do anything,” he says.
“But I thought, Can I do something that’s safe, that honors the spirit of the lockdown, that I don’t put anybody in danger?” What Gabbay decided was that if his friends couldn’t come to him, he would go to them, one by one, stopping long enough at each home to say hello from a safe distance, separated by window glass. And to take their portraits.
“I was just wanting to have an improvisation session on my birthday and create energy for people who I knew were struggling,” he says. He didn’t send out the mass text announcing his plan until a day or two before the event. “I had leverage because it was my birthday, and what were they going to say, no? They’re on lockdown.”
Almost no one said no. On the morning of March 26, Gabbay set off in a pair of white overalls lugging two camera bodies, a drone, and a couple of GoPros as well as a printed-out schedule of 26 stops.
The first would be at 7:55 a.m. and the last up in Pasadena 13 hours later. “I had set up kind of an insurmountable task that somehow went off without a hitch. Basically shooting for three minutes and driving for 20 minutes,” he says. “What was funny was that the GPS was estimating times based on regular traffic patterns. But of course there was no traffic. It would say 25 minutes and I’d get there in 14.”
The video Gabbay stitched together from the GoPro footage he shot along the way captures the frenetic odyssey of a spirited pilgrim skittering pell mell about the city visiting as many people as possible at a time when nobody was supposed to be visiting anyone. It is the birthday celebration Gabbay, and his friends and family, needed.
The portfolio of portraits from that day delivers something deeper, a beautiful, sneakily voyeuristic look at what life on lockdown looks like from the outside. “I got choked up the first time I saw it,” says Dave Ahdoot, Gabbay’s cousin, who posed in his boxer shorts at the second-to-last stop of the day. “I think I related to almost everyone in the photos. There’s a lot of longing in there.”
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