Portraits of a pandemic: Images of life with COVID-19 in Atlanta’s West End

One photographer documented how her community was living through it.

Frame by frame, photographer Melissa Alexander documented Atlanta’s West End during the last several years, capturing a vibrant black neighborhood in the throes of gentrification.

It’s important to remember what was, and then honor it with pictures, said Alexander, who goes by the moniker “Phyllis Iller,” a play on the legendary comic, Phyllis Diller. It’s also her neighborhood.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alexander watched it unfold. As metro Atlanta locked down, Alexander, her daughter and mother followed directives to stay inside. But like many others, Alexander found the isolation dispiriting. Then her friend, Olamma Oparah, suggested a socially distant visit with her family. The photographer jumped at the chance. The ground rules were simple: Stay at least six feet apart, and wear a mask. Oparah and her son showed up on the appointed afternoon and stayed in the car.

But after an hour or so of talking, it occurred to Alexander that what they were doing was historic, even on the smallest of scales. So, she ran inside her house, grabbed her camera, then started taking pictures of Oparah and her son. From that visit came the idea of what Alexander is calling “Pull-Up Portraits.”

Through Instagram, she began making appointments with followers who wanted to have their portraits made to show how they were living through the pandemic. It was up to them how they wanted to style themselves. All Alexander wanted was an expression of the moment.

“People say, ‘I haven’t dressed up in a month. I’ve been wearing sweatpants.’ But this gives them a reason to get dressed up and see themselves that way again, before everything happened,” Alexander said. “It’s a documentation of our resilience.”

Now that stay-at-home orders have been lifted, Alexander is winding down the project. Yet, it remains a testament to a historic moment in the West End, and the rest of the world.

“It’s a documentation of our resilience,” Alexander said.

One photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Alyssa Pointer, spent an afternoon in early May with Alexander at a photo shoot. Pointer follows Alexander on Instagram, took notice of the project and thought “Pull-Up Portraits” — and its creator — should be documented. Pointer’s photographs accompany this story, as indicated in the photo captions, alongside Alexander’s photographs. Here, both record memorable moments that represent how Atlanta’s African American community has been unquestionably shaped by COVID-19.


Olamma Oparah and her son, Anyanwu, 6, Atlanta

“I took my son to see Titi Mel. I pulled up in the car and put on my hazards. I sat in the car, and she (Melissa) was on the sidewalk. We were out there such a long time, talking, and she was like, ‘Hold on,’ and she ran in the house and got her camera. I got out to stretch. My son got up on the sunroof.

It was important for (all of) us to practice social distancing because we love each other, and because we love each other, we stay away from each other. Even if we’re six feet away, the love is still there.”

Jamaal McKnight, 39, and son, Taj, 16, Atlanta

“I manage cameras and equipment rental for the film industry. (In March) I was talking to a production assistant who thought she had some symptoms and was told by a doctor that she might or might not have it, so she came on to work. So, I had my son go and stay with his mom because if I had it, I didn’t want to infect him. I’ve been fine; I haven’t experienced any type of symptoms at all. I’ve been furloughed from work since the entertainment industry isn’t producing anything right now. I go see him once a week, but we walk around the neighborhood, and we wear our masks. He’s living with his mom, stepdad, little brother and grandmother, so I don’t want to be asymptomatic and then give it to him and then he takes it to them. It’s definitely lonely now seeing him just once a week. I miss him. I miss having him around.”

Inas Mahdi and her daughter, Sahana Mahdi-Minnifield, 12, and son, Kafele Mahdi-Minnifield, 6, Decatur 

“I work as an epidemiologist. Every time we go somewhere — well, they don’t go anywhere — but where I go, I wear the mask. (With masks) you can see the pain in people’s eyes, but also that we’re still trying to look for joy, even in this moment. We are living through history.”

Todd and Gudrun Hughes, 50 and 43, and their children, Laurel, 6, and Parker, 2 

Gudrun: “I’m a Star Wars fan. (Todd’s) a Star Trek fan. We’re all huge nerds. I’m a 911 operator. I’m working 60-hour weeks now with the pandemic. It’s hard. How do you explain to a 6-year-old that there’s this germ that you can’t see, but it could take you away from me? And if that happened, I couldn’t go on. But a 6-year-old only knows she can’t see her friends.”

Jennifer De Barr, Atlanta

“I wanted to commemorate this whole situation. I hope I’m never in a situation again where people are fighting over toilet paper, and I hope I’m never in a quarantine situation again.”

Eric Payne, 48, and his daughter, Zora Payne, 14, Atlanta

“This is (Zora’s) first time out since this all started in March.

We've been out in the neighborhood, but this is her first time out, out. I kept her under wraps."