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Postcards From The Pandemic: 'Essential' Photography

The Brimfield Bread Oven in Kent, Ohio, keeps baking to fulfill curbside pickup orders. [Andrew Dolph Photography]
The Brimfield Bread Oven in Kent, Ohio, keeps baking to fulfill curbside pickup orders. [Andrew Dolph Photography]

When schools in Northeast Ohio closed their doors and sent their students home to help combat the spread of COVID-19, Akron-based photographer Andrew Dolph found himself furloughed from his job with Lifetouch, the professional photography company that documents everything from sporting events to graduations at schools across the country.

“I’ve applied my journalistic skillset to that job, kind of taking the documentary tradition into school photography,” Dolph said. “On an average week, I could be as far west as Bellevue, as far east as Painesville, as far south as North Canton.” Overall, it was a large radius of coverage, including fifty or so high schools on a consistent basis.

In the wake of losing his full-time work, Dolph tapped into his motivation to stay visually fresh as a photographer and his desire to find a way to give back to the community. Cooking had always been a fallback in the earlier years of his career, and he was curious to see how a number of local restaurants have been faring since conforming to new operating procedures under social distancing restrictions.

Camera in hand, Dolph set out to document “the new normal” many restaurants have adapted to: empty dining rooms, enhanced cleaning procedures, and PPEs. Dolph’s project, Essential Acts of Service, captures the evolving restaurant industry as owners work to keep their businesses open through the pandemic.

Wes Cowie, owner of Colonial Wine & Beverage in Chesterland, sorts through a shipment of wine. [Andrew Dolph Photography]

Haunting Moments

I'd say the primary thing that's going through my head is how best to encapsulate the feeling, the moments, with my camera, because I'm still letting my guiding voice as a photographer reign true. You know, I'm still trying to stay true to the documentary process.

The first adjective that comes to mind is haunting. Being that I'm in and out of restaurants quite a bit before the pandemic, and to see them now, there's just nothing going on. It's really, really bizarre. And it's haunting in that a lot of the dining areas, all the lights are off.

So beyond the specific scenes of the eateries and the establishments, there's a little bit of apprehension on the faces of some of the owners, because they don't really have anything else going for them. Staying positive is absolutely critical.

Bags full of takeout orders sit ready for customers to pick up at Flour Restaurant in Moreland Hills. [Andrew Dolph Photography]

Staying Afloat

The goal is to eventually create a general restaurant fund of some kind, whether it be a nonprofit or some other funding funnel. Maybe it would be a GoFundMe account that funnels into a general restaurant fund and people can specify how much money and where that money should go.

Honestly, the best way to get money into the hands of restaurant owners is to simply place an order. That goes directly to their bottom line. Order food from them. You know, that's what they want more than anything. Beyond the monetary value, that’s their sense of worth. That makes them feel like they're really appreciated and that what they're doing matters.

The Brimfield Bread Oven takes a customer's order from the company's parking lot. [Andrew Dolph Photography]


Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.