Neil Kramer is finally out of the house. And he’s coming to DC to talk about “Quarantine in Queens,” his funny take on what it was like to unexpectedly find himself on Covid-19 pandemic lockdown with his ex-wife and 86-year-old mother.
As his photos, which he posted on his Instagram account went viral, Kramer found that people all over could relate to the stories he was telling. He has since been featured on NBC’s The Today Show, The Washington Post, NPR, BuzzFeed News and dozens of media outlets around the world.
Along with the media attention, have come accolades. Quarantine in Queens earned him “Portrait Photographer of the Year” at the 2020 Annual Photography Awards, 1st Place in Family Photography at the ND Awards, and finalist in the Portrait Project at the Lucie Foundation.
Kramer’s talk will cap a full-day of speakers and panels on visual storytelling at the Eaton Hotel in downtown DC. Visit Focus on the Story’s event calendar to see the full lineup of free talks during Focus on the Story’s Visual Storytelling Summit, which kicks off the month-long Focus on the Story International Photo Festival.
Mike Lee: So, what were the circumstances at the beginning of the lockdown when the three of you stayed together in one place?
Neil Kramer: The reasons for us being together developed a few months before the pandemic. After my divorce from Sophia in Los Angeles several years earlier, I returned to Queens, New York, to take over my childhood apartment when my mother became a snowbird, renting a place in the Seinfeld-like Century Village in Boca Raton, Florida.
At the end of 2019, I was in Queens, and my mother was in Florida. Her lease at Century Village ran out, and she wanted to return to New York until the spring. A few months later, I received a phone call from my ex-wife, Sophia. There was a plumbing disaster in her apartment in Los Angeles. I flew there to California to help her pack up, but she didn’t have the stomach to search for a new place. We agreed to put her stuff in storage. She would stay with me for a month in New York. So, there we were – my mother, my ex-wife, and me in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Queens, New York. We made jokes that this was like a weird psychological experiment, not realizing that our community became the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States a month later. Two years later, for complicated reasons, we are still together.
ML: What was the most hilarious moment during this experience, and what was the most difficult?
NK: Before starting this project, I think I was more snooty in categorizing genres as more “difficult” or “important.” Now, I realize that every genre has its own challenges. Maybe domestic photography won’t get you killed as easily as working as a war correspondent, but taking photos of your own family – has its own dangers. Our most popular photo – the three of us crammed together in a tiny bathtub was a very funny photo. Unfortunately, it was also the worst, most stressful experience. Sophia was stressing that my own mother was seeing me naked, while mother was freaking out that the speedlight I was using would fall into the tub and electrocute us all. Most of the shooting happened in a tiny apartment with lousy lighting, so I had to teach myself a lot about using strobes. I also had to use a 16mm wide-angle lens for most of the photos because it was the only way I could get us all in the frame.
ML: How did your mother and ex-wife react when you began posting your photo diary on social media?
NK: During the first few months of the project, the shoots were pretty relaxed. Sophia and my mother both knew I was one of those slightly crazy artists who liked to share his dirty laundry in public. I had a personal blog for many years. But social media raised the stakes. Once we got some media attention from the Today Show and the Washington Post, my family became more self-conscious, and there were some days we couldn’t shoot because someone’s hair didn’t look good. It would drive me crazy, but I needed them more than they needed me. I frequently resorted to bribing them with Dunkin’ Donuts. You’ll also notice that our photos tended to be humorous at the beginning of the project, but as we continued on, the pandemic became exhausting. It was a struggle to be funny and honest. The photos I am taking now, on Day 750, are very different from those on Day 50. My family was less comfortable expressing some harder truths about the pandemic. I think that is why I began to take so many self-portraits when I wanted to explore themes of the isolation and loneliness of the past two years.
ML: How are the three of you relating now after two years of the lockdown and its aftermath?
NK: This is the most challenging question of them all because it forces me to talk about the current situation. Don’t worry, everything is fine. But it is getting harder. The bonds are breaking. We don’t have the threat of Covid anymore to explain why we are still together. We are now dealing with the psychological and emotional aftermath of it all. We still want to be there for each other, but it’s gotten to the point where we all need to make some individual decisions. We have become somewhat dependent on each other. Maybe we expected a clearer end to the pandemic. I honestly thought that I would end this project with us getting our first vaccine shot. That was over a year ago! We are still wearing our masks on the subway. Even coming to the Focus on the Story conference opened up a discussion on whether it is safer to go by plane or train. I suppose this is a long-winded answer to the question. The pandemic hasn’t really ended yet for us. Our little story is like a microcosm of society as a whole. It is time to move on. Or is it? It’s confusing.
Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. A collection of his short stories, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can see more of his work on his website.