Sean Rayford stands in front of SC Statehouse

Hindsight 2020: The photographer

Gamecocks reflect on how COVID-19 changed their jobs and how they work

This summer, Carolinian magazine reached out to a cross-section of alumni, faculty, staff and students to ask how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their work, and their workplace philosophies. Columbia, South Carolina-based photo­journalist Sean Rayford is a regular contributor to national media outlets such The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Associated Press and Getty Images. The pandemic changed the way he shoots, at least temporarily. “Regardless of whether I felt comfortable, considering what’s going on I shouldn’t impose myself on people because I need to represent the profession,” says the media arts alumnus. “I’ve felt like I’ve had to represent the profession of photojournalists every time I’ve gone out because there’s so few of us now.”

As a freelancer, I’m always juggling ideas for personal projects, and light bulbs are going off, but then I realized that in a pandemic it’s just not going to work. Like, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to hang out with a group of old people in a small church, you know? Idea after idea just gets shot down in your mind. 

When lockdown happened, I went to an art supply store and got an easel and some new paint brushes. I was like, “You know, I’m not going to have anything to cover — I’m going to be a painter now. Here’s my thing that I’m going to do visually, creatively.” I painted one canvas one solid color, as a background to build on, and then I decided to do a portrait project instead. I shot portraits and interviewed people in the Columbia area about how the pandemic was affecting them. I didn’t paint at all after that.

There were no sports to shoot, and I shot probably less than three news assignments for the local newspapers — and this was during the most historic year of my lifetime. But when restaurants reopened, I became really popular. I had, like, five days of different national media outlets needing coverage. I had assignments like going to the mall. Being able to go to the mall was now newsworthy. 

I spent every summer holiday at Myrtle Beach for Getty Images — Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July and then Labor Day weekend — just doing general coverage of what a vacation beach town looks like during the pandemic. Those were definitely some of the least cautious people, not just in South Carolina but from across the country.

Outside was definitely safer, and it’s safer if people keep moving. I’m typically standing still, but I do move — spot, spot, spot. Lots of times I just let the crowd pass over me like a stone in a river. 

I shoot wide. I used to shoot wide enough where I would be so close that people wouldn’t know they’re in the photo, they just think you’re shooting past them. But during the pandemic I wasn’t going to be using a lens where I had to get really close up. I made a joke on a Facebook photo group like, “I guess my 17-35 is going to sit on the shelf for a while!” I had to back off out of respect for other people. 

I can do things a little bit differently now that I’m vaccinated. And I’m more relaxed. That’s such an important part of making photos of other people, feeling comfortable and having that ability to violate that space. If you’re worried in the back of your mind, you’re not going to get the shot. 

Personally, I’m hungry for that closeness. I’m hungry for that type of interaction and for those types of photos. And I think there’s an appetite for those kinds of photos again. 

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