When Business as Usual Was Turned Upside Down
A photo retrospective on how the pandemic changed the business world and destroyed the economy in 2020 – producing some winners and tragically too many losers.
By Alana Celii, Crest Chapman, Brent Lewis, Renee Melides and Brent Murray
December 30, 2020
The state of the world economy and the workforce is easy to measure by data: 82 million people around the world have caught the coronavirus; In the United States, 20 million people were receiving unemployment benefits at the end of November. However, doing business is not all about data, capital movement and the pursuit of profit. That year, as the pandemic paralyzed the economy, photographers fanned out to document the impact the virus had on shops, restaurants, and factories, as well as the workers they depend on.
Businesses big and small start out as dreams. For every Jeff Bezos who quit his job in finance to start Amazon, there are plenty more like Hector Hsu, who did a Ph.D. while undergraduate. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Very Excellent, a Chinese restaurant opened in Bristol, NH John Tully conquered this lakeside town in April when it emerged that the pandemic was affecting people’s livelihoods beyond belief.
As the virus spread, our photographers captured how people and companies learned to adapt. Tom Jamieson got on a plane to show cargo strapped to where passengers had plugged in headphones and drank beer on their way to their vacation. In Bernal Heights, a neighborhood in San Francisco, Cayce Clifford showed us a sale in the Bernal Bakery, a pop-up started in a one-bedroom apartment by two unemployed restaurant workers, Ryan Stagg and Daniella Banchero.
Much of what we saw in 2020 was scary – and the physical distance between subject and photographer this year contributed to that feeling. You can see it in Joseph Haeberle capturing Forrest VanTuyl, a musician in Enterprise, Ore, who was silhouetted with a horse in October for a photo essay about the virus’ impact on rural communities.
Joseph Rushmore’s image of socially distant people waiting in a large hall for help with their unemployment benefit claims is a reminder that even when faced with a similar future with many others, you can feel alone in difficult times.
As the year went on, we got used to seeing empty rooms and forgotten buildings. In March, Haruka Sakaguchi toured the boarded-up storefronts of luxury brands in New York City that had accepted the inevitable: window shopping was over for now.
And a photo of Eve Edelheit from an empty parking lot at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida requires almost no caption at all.
Photography always includes an element of trust between a photographer and the subject. But something else came into play for these images – risk. Risk of getting infected with the virus. Risk that we may overlook the nuance of a story from a distance. Instead, we saw a mixture of worry, doubt and livelihood on the precipice of collapse. We saw resilience, even hope, suggesting that all was not lost. – Ellen Joan Pollock, business editor
Among the many things that have changed due to bans and restrictions caused by viruses, perhaps most noticeable has been the change in the way we shop. In Manhattan, where the cobbled streets of SoHo came to a standstill, some sleek luxury boutiques, including Fendi, Celine, and Chanel, weren’t just closing storefronts. They had covered them with huge sheets of plywood.
In late March, a staggering 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits in one week when the coronavirus outbreak devastated almost every corner of the American economy. Previously in 1982 there were 695,000 unemployment figures in one week. The pandemic left nearly 10 million Americans unemployed in just two weeks, a number that far exceeded the darkest times of the last recession.