During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.
Jackie Neale is a hybrid photographic artist creating storytelling installations in mediums ranging from alternative processes to low-fidelity recordings. Her process relies on community immersion to depict honest interactions in underrecognized communities and serving as personal testimonials as oral histories. She is the former Online Features Imaging Director at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, completing over 300 storytelling projects over 15-plus years. She is also a published author, and undergraduate Photography Professor at Saint Joseph’s University and the New York Film Academy. Neale has completed residencies in New York City, Philadelphia, Texas, Mexico, Calabria and Milan, Italy.
AS: How are you coping?
JN: I go through ebbs and flows, so how I’m coping in the midst of a global pandemic is hard to be concise about. On the spectrum of possibilities, I’m coping well. But if we’re being honest, any down time I have I begin to feel terrified. I taught my last class on March 11th in New York City. Both campuses where I teach closed by the night of March 13th. While one school went on spring break, the other had us teaching online in three days. I’ve been nothing short of thankful for the work and distraction of reworking a five class roster for the ungrad curricula, but any time in between, I was fielding countless alerts, notifications, and news from both schools and the media. For a month and a half solid, I was hell-bent on managing a brave and focused demeanor so my students would feel safe within the confines of my Zoom classes. But as the semester ends, unemployment looms, and bit by bit as I have time to think, I realize I’m somewhere between depression and paralysis.
I think about the stress and anxiety of my students. There was huge potential and talent in one of my NYC courses, and I decided to turn it into a storytelling class that would conduct interviews and take a variety of portraits to accompany them. They named the effort The Corona Collective. I am the Art Director as well as a member. Each photographer has a different purpose in the storytelling and their own visual idea for portraits, but when conducting interviews, we decided to have three questions that would overlap: 1) How has this affected you emotionally? 2) Has this had an affect on your familial relationships…with your children, parents, grandparents, spouse, partner…? 3) Do you get bored, and how do you get yourself entertained? The objective is to gather an overall collection of our experiences during this global pandemic consisting of 20-plus interviews in a Storycorps Community, portraits and imagery published on Instagram, and also to have the work on its own exhibition website. The work produced in this collective could potentially be turned into a physical exhibition as well. We shall see. My Philadelphia students have also been working through the experience by creating photo essays as well.
In my mind and my experience, this is the best way for me to cope. I use photography as a way to cope–always have, always will. And when I think about it, I’m so glad I can be the one to show my students how their voice and photographs are important and should be seen and heard.
AS: Has your routine changed?
JN: Absolutely. I woke up at 5:00am to teach in New York City every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and in Philadelphia every Thursday. I would be on trains and subways for four hours a day and then some. Now I wake up and commute downstairs to my studio to teach. I am extremely grateful for this. I find solace and comfort being able to take short breaks to make a coffee and some lunch. But I am sitting in front of a computer for the entirety of my classes.
AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?
JN: I feel pretty depressed about the whole process. All of my exhibitions, events, and teaching contracts have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. I was supposed to exhibit and lecture at the ArtExpo in NYC and to teach in Florence in May. All of that was cancelled. On March 7th I had just gained zoning approval to open my gallery and community art space, Big Day Film Collective. April 1st was supposed to be the first opening, with photographer Jon Henry’s Stranger Fruit exhibition. May 1st was to have been the opening of Let Us Fall, an exhibition by up-and-coming photographer Parish Mandhan. Both are being pushed back and back. The opening of my new space is getting pushed back and back and back. It is heart wrenching, and problematic fiscal-wise.
AS: What matters most right now?
JN: I continue to think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the five essential needs, and we have returned to the base essential needs–air, water, food, shelter, reproduction – our general well-being.
It matters most that my family and friends are well. But even that has been a stress. A dear friend who is an ER doctor in Manhattan got Covid-19 the weekend of the lockdown. She is fine now, but had a harrowing three weeks. Another friend in Miami had a Covid-19 related heart attack, then heart surgery, intubation, etc., just a week ago. What matters is that everyone believes and follows along with social distancing rules until it is safe not to.
What also matters is that the government takes greater responsibility for the economic disruption of all of our salaries and income. Everyone is carrying mountains of debt, myself included. There are not enough relief grants to help us all. We shouldn’t have to all clamber for the same bits. There are thousands of us. There is not enough for us all. I keep thinking, how will the panel on all of the relief grants judge the applicants? Based on talent? Desperation? Potential? CV credibility? My gosh, how is it going to ever be fair? I just don’t know. But I’ve applied for as many as I qualify for. All of my work will dry up within a week and half, and then I will have to fight upstream on the online New York unemployment system, which is going to be harrowing.
Health first. Economics second. Then we build up Maslow’s Hierarchy again when this is all over, I guess.
AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?
JN: I’m trying to remember what it was like after September 11th in New York City. I’m trying to remember how the road went for photographers afterwards. I remember how the balance between traditional film photography and digital photography firmly and without question tipped in favor of digital photography, and how anyone who stuck to film was left behind. I remember how it was important to be in front of that technology at the time, but to also have the know-how of production and process that came with old school photography production teams. While my personal work is hybrid-analogue, my commercial work is all high-end digital. I’m trying to see what is next and what to embrace as I move forward in my career as both an artist and a commercial photographer.