Ginette, East Village, New York City January 2020


In Ginette’s apartment I think about the air. It’s on my mind in every moment, as each second passes, sentimental and weighted with her tenacity. When I’m photographing her it’s there, when I’m maneuvering along the narrow path that cuts through the debris that lovingly intersects every attempt at movement, and as I evaluate my breathing status as it relates to my asthma . How long do I have before I need to launch myself with difficulty into the little hallway for a mask break outside her apartment, the door partially disabled by the blockade formed by bags of cat food and memories? It’s always there, this consideration and awareness, calculated ruminations, the air that surrounds me impartial but deadly in its potential to wreak havoc on my airways. These days I don’t get any mask breaks, however.

I stand outside the door for a few minutes, desperately wiping my nose under my respirator, a mask worn before masks had to be worn to protect me from the air in her apartment. I talk to Ginette through the door, and listen to her recount a memory of her mother and Switzerland that I know by heart, one that she relives with the same intensity as the first telling. When I’m ready, I step through the door, and feel the carpet beneath my feet, decades old and stiffened with time and a density of grime that would defy logic under a microscope.

Portrait of Ginette in November 2019 in her apartment, 199 Avenue A, East Village NYC

I think about the air. Close, stifling, heavy with mold and a moisture that can be felt as a luster on the skin, lilting wisps of cat hair and cobwebs floating somehow without current to guide in the absence of ventilation, dense pockets of potent decay that startle even through my respirator. Markers of long dead things in the layers of detritus that test the limits of my curiosity and force me to consider every footstep. Innumerable exhalations that lend weight and credence to lifelong laments, an unwavering and unrelenting recount of childhood and adolescent misery as I race to record each precious sight.

After spending time with Ginette, photographing her in the marshes of misery and memory, I had to wade through my own mixed emotions about the intricacy involved with such a clear intrusion. Sometimes I found myself treading as softly as possible, speaking at times and at others remaining silent….a balancing act intended to preserve my right to persist, lingering at times beyond welcome so that I could catch that one image that will accurately reflect and portray everything that I was witness to in her world.

Every minute that I spent photographing, composing, moving through challenging lighting and deep emotion, I was also calculating and measuring and evaluating my own breathing status. My respirator never really fit correctly, the bandaids I used to tape it securely to my chin were never adequately fastened to my skin. For every minute I took joy in the photographic work, I was risking hours of intense discomfort caused by allergic asthma resulting from everything that had taken up residence in Ginette’s world. I would exit at the end of these sessions, tearing my mask off, wiping my face, racing down the cramped, moldy stairwell to the street. I held my breath till I reached the door to the outside world, respirator-free, bursting through my worry about my breathing, relief to be outside. Out on the street. Joyous inhalation. Freedom from my mask.

January 2020

Author: suzannesteinphoto


2 thoughts on “Mask”

  1. Suzanne,
    Re: Mask
    This is the best work I have seen in a generation. Your photography and prose, with insight and beauty, are the highest levels of photojournalistic standards. Your images are so strong and beautiful they speak for themselves with truth and compassion. I admire the task you have given yourself because of the importance these stories tell. We all benefit from your passionate work.
    All the best


  2. Incredible work. Your compassion is obvious in both your imagery and text. It’s so important that stories such as this are told especially in the 21st century. Fantastic work Suzanne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: