When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down Mexico City, photographer Miguel Tovar witnessed its unprecedented effects on the metropolis.
Tovar, a capital native, saw its buildings, parks and playgrounds empty out while cars vanished from its streets. He decided to capture the unfolding moment with his camera, and his resulting imagery has won recognition from Harvard University.
Tovar’s photo of a sprawling twilight cityscape featuring the hashtag #QuedateEnCasa has received second-place honors in the exhibition Documenting the Impact of Covid-19 through Photography: Collective Isolation in Latin America, sponsored by Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
“I feel very honored to receive this award,” Tovar wrote in an email interview. He only learned about the open call for entries from a friend.
In his work as a photojournalist, Tovar has captured gripping images of people, from bone searchers — day laborers who search for human remains of the disappeared — to Central American migrants in Tijuana looking to cross the border wall into the United States. Yet the photo that caught Harvard’s attention is part of a series notable for its absence of people.
This is a departure from the way Tovar began covering the pandemic when it first reached Mexico. Working in another field of expertise, video, he visited locations where people were working on the pandemic response, from hospitals to crematoriums to cemeteries, shooting footage for media companies.
“I had the opportunity to accompany the paramedics who were transporting people with severe [Covid-19] symptoms from their homes to public hospitals, and I saw their family members wait in deep anguish and sadness,” he wrote in an artist statement on the competition website.
As might be expected, this collective experience wore away at him. He felt physically and mentally exhausted after several weeks, and highly aware that he ran the risk of contracting Covid-19 himself.
He decided that he would record the impact of the pandemic in a different way. Traversing his home city by bicycle, he used a drone to take photos from afar. It was both the ultimate way to socially distance and an evocation of the larger number of birds that seemed to flock to the city’s cleaner air following the disappearance of humans.
“I did it as an escape, as a break from the scenes of illness and death, and looking for another way to show the effects of the pandemic where I live,” he explained.
He shot at dusk and in black and white, both of which were conscious decisions.
“I use black-and-white photography because it makes it harder to distinguish parts of the city once you cannot see even the colors of the facades of homes,” he said in his artist statement. “While color images of sundown usually depict warmth, black-and-white accentuates the strain and despair that fill our minds during days of quarantine.”
He found plenty of despair in the aerial images. He regrets seeing empty public spaces in a once vibrant city.
“Sidewalks, parks, and other spaces seemed abandoned in the photographs, without any figures, not even passing shadows,” he said. “This was once unimaginable. Mexico City changed. A children’s park was a synonym for danger.”
Yet he also found hope after seeing that life goes on for the capital’s 20 million inhabitants.
“[Large] buildings that look like honeycombs give signs of life, one light at a time,” he wrote. “Every window was a universe: the world of a person or a family that is locked in.”
Tovar has extensive experience in using a photograph or a video to express a larger meaning. As a cinematographer, he was part of a New York Times team that won a World Press Photo award earlier this year in the documentary short category for their film It’s Mutilation: The Police in Chile are Blinding Protesters.
“I feel great satisfaction because the story in Chile reached many people in many countries, and our work showed, with great impact, the brutal repression of the government of Sebastian Piñera against protest and social discontent, for which it was harshly criticized,” Tovar said. “This makes me think that our work as journalists serves society.”
He’s also proud of his contributions in photo and video to the 2019 Netflix documentary The 43, whose title refers to the number of disappeared students at the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa.
“The story of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa was something that I followed from the beginning,” Tovar said.
He covered the story as a photojournalist for three years for various media organizations after the disappearance was reported in 2014, making key contacts at the college. He thinks his work might have resulted in Anima Films’ interest in bringing him onto the documentary project, which was produced by Sebastian Gamba and directed by Matias Gueilburt.
“I went in to photograph and film interviews to complete the project,” Tovar said. “In fact, I made some trips alone to Iguala and Tixtla and other places, accompanied by a great friend and local journalist from Guerrero, Sergio Ocampo, to recreate part of what happened the night of the disappearance.”
Tovar’s initiative has helped him rebound from a difficult moment about a decade ago when the Associated Press stated that he had altered a photo that he submitted to them.
“About this, I can only say that it was a mistake, a bad decision,” he said. “At that time, many people spoke about the incident as if it had been the worst thing they had ever seen in their life, and it affected me a lot. But I learned a lot from this situation, and now it is completely in the past.”
As for the present, he’s going to reflect on his latest award, from Harvard.
“[In] these strange days, we have to take advantage of the good news and turn them into special moments to give us an opportunity to feel happiness and share it with the people we love,” Tovar said.
Even so, he’s aware that there seems to be no end to the “strange days” of Covid-19 — as his photos suggest.
“We’re told that the city will open gradually, but what will that normal life look like?” he asked in his artist statement. “Will our spaces remain as empty as they are now? We’re uncertain if this sense of enclosure, and this sense of dread, will be our new future.”
Rich Tenorio is a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily.