Charlotte photographer launches pandemic portrait series to tell the stories behind the masks

Charlotte photographer launches pandemic portrait series to tell the stories behind the masks
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When coronavirus-related restrictions closed restaurants to dine-in customers, Kevin Hooper was suddenly out of work as a food runner at Haberdish. With some extra time, he decided to lean into to his other passion — photography.

Now, he’s photographed 18 subjects for a portrait series he’s calling “Six Feet From Me.” His photos tell the story of Charlotteans from different industries and different neighborhoods — all facing the same pandemic.

Hooper started by photographing friends and those in the service industry, but he’s since branched out. Subjects include a mechanic, a bicycle shop owner, a construction worker, a barber, an artist, and a rapper.

With each portrait he shoots with his Sony a7R II and shares on Instagram and on Reddit, he includes a backstory.

There’s Michael “Meko” Little, sitting with gardening equipment outside a home on Beatties Ford Road that’s been in his family for generations. Little, an artist, built a large garden out back as a way to give back to his community.

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There’s Mills Davis, who owns South Main Cycles in Belmont and was searching for more answers to the COVID crisis when Hooper photographed him. He worried about the wellbeing of family members, employees, customers, and the community.

And there’s Roger Kongkham, co-owner of Thai Taste, who spoke about the hardships of keeping a restaurant afloat during the shutdown.

Hooper has many more portraits he hasn’t shared. Each person photographed is wearing a mask or face covering of some sort.

kevin hooper photographer

Lee Millsaps is a barber and owner of Olde Charlotte Barber Shop. (Photo by Kevin Hooper)

kevin hooper photographer

Kaylie Sharbaugh is a hair stylist at Vibe Salon. (Photo by Kevin Hooper)

kevin hooper photographer

Jeff Tonidandel is a restauranteur and co-owner of Haberdish, Crepe Cellar, and the upcoming Supperland, among other local spots. Hooper worked at Haberdish prior to the pandemic and says Tonidandel and other team members have been especially supportive of his project. (Photo by Kevin Hooper)

Charlotte-based photographer Kevin Hooper has worked with local rapper Elevator Jay countless times, but this portrait was different than other shots. Jay loves to fish, and here he’s seen with a mask on. (Photo by Kevin Hooper)

“To me, there’s something beautiful about knowing I have something in common with every person who reads this, even if it’s a common hardship,” Hooper says. “And I think that feeling of unity is needed and helpful right now.”

Hooper would like to see the work published as a book one day, or as a gallery exhibition when it’s safe to do so. He’s even exploring the idea of an outdoor installation.

But that’s not really his goal. Hooper’s end goal with the portrait series is that the series has an end. He hopes the project becomes “completely irrelevant as quickly as possible when technological, medical, and social innovation has made the response to (the) pandemic manageable and normal,” he says.

The photos and the stories behind the masks, he adds, could serve as an account of what it was like to live in Charlotte during the coronavirus pandemic.

For now, Six Feet From Me is a virtual exhibition of sorts. Hooper’s Instagram is his primary medium for sharing his work. But he’s in the process of setting up an IndieGoGo funding campaign to support the project.

Hooper also hopes to help others with this project; he’s currently looking for opportunities to raise funds for the film and service industries. “The entire team (at Haberdish) has been an incredible support to me, before and during this experience,” Hooper explains, so now he wants to give back.

Feature photo of Darion Fleming in front of his mural titled “Pure’ll Gold.” (Photo by Kevin Hooper)

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