San Benito Lifestyle

Photography exhibit honors essential workers

Hollister photographer Marisa Duran teams up with San Benito Arts Council to display her work in a unique way.

After seeing the mailman walking in her neighborhood, photographer Marisa Duran started thinking about the workers serving on the front lines in the struggle against the coronavirus, those with jobs previously taken for granted. Wondering how best to honor these workers, she began photographing them for a unique virtual gallery showing that is happening this weekend.

Duran, 43, has worked as a portrait photographer in Hollister for the last six years. When the shelter-in-place order started, it hit her business hard.  

“Everything immediately stopped,” Duran said. “I was scheduled to do a job taking pictures of school kids and that got canceled. That first week I lost work, and then I realized I was going to lose all the school portraits, everything. It was really scary to me.”

With no work for the foreseeable future, Duran took her camera around the city.

“I started taking pictures of closed businesses and I thought ‘this is kind of isolating,’” she said. “Then I started noticing the people who were still required to work.”

The first subject for her project walked right by her door every day.

“I asked my mailman if I could photograph him and he said ‘yes,’” Duran said. “I’ve always thought of frontline workers as being policemen and firemen. And in talking to my mailman he told me that there were other times in history where people in his job just had to keep working.  He said people felt comforted seeing him, getting their mail and being part of their daily routine.”

This got Duran thinking about the workers in the community providing essential services.

“As a police officer or a first responder, you know that you are going to be there in times of emergency,” Duran said. “But you think about essential workers, they never knew what was going to be happening now when they signed up for their jobs.”

The portrait photographer spoke with some of these workers and took pictures of people who crossed her path.

“I started with people I knew and other people saw me taking photos or I would introduce myself,” Duran said. “Like the women who work at my daughter’s school cafeteria. I’d say, ‘Hello, my daughter goes to school here and I’m taking pictures.’”

With a telephoto lens on her camera, Duran said taking photos while following social distancing guidelines was easy.

“It is not really an issue,” she said. “You get your 200 millimeter lens out and you are good to go.”

Christina Castaneda, a teacher at Meadowlark Preschool, was one of Duran’s early subjects.

“She stopped by when I was there alone. In the beginning it was a little awkward because I was being cautious and she was being cautious as well,” Castaneda said. “But she was very careful and conscious of where she was standing with space between us and making sure she wasn’t touching anything. She was there for maybe 10 minutes.”

Castaneda, who is deemed an essential employee, understands the idea of putting herself in potential danger.

“It is uncomfortable going to work and not knowing if you are at risk of getting sick,” she said. “But at the end of the day, that is my job and I am committed.”

Jennifer Laine, executive director of the San Benito County Arts Council, saw postings of Duran’s photos online and became interested in presenting her project to the public.

“It seemed to strike a chord with the social media community,” Laine said. “Just coincidentally she reached out to me and said ‘I don’t know if you have seen this series, but I was wondering if there was a way we can expand the project.’”

Duran and Laine collaborated with Arts Council staff on a way to present the images.

“We had to think about the project, what kind of message do we want people to come away with, and how can we do it logistically with everything shut down,” Laine said. “We first thought about projecting them on a large building downtown, but with the lengthy process of trying to get approval we just decided to use the houses of people we know.”

The group selected three two-story homes on which to display Duran’s photos. Over three nights, for an hour each night, the images will be projected against the fronts of the houses. There are 25 images in all.

“You can see them from the street,” Duran said. “It will be projected large so you can drive by and see them. They will go over the house, over the windows, over the doors. There is no screen. It will be a rotating video, repeating every few minutes.”

From 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. on May 15-17, Duran’s photos will be projected at the following locations:

  • Friday, May 15: Fifth Street between West and Powell
  • Saturday, May 16: 190 Velado Street between Cushman and Severinsen
  • Sunday, May 17: 2581 Sadies Drive between Brentwood and Mimosa

The San Benito County Arts Council issued a viewing protocol for the exhibition that asks community members who visit the installation to adhere to social distancing guidelines, as well as the county’s face covering mandate in situations where it is difficult to maintain six feet of distance from others.

Duran said she wants the focus to be on the people in the photos, not just on her work.  

“I want people to be appreciative of these individuals and their commitment to working for other people,” she said. “I appreciate their compassion for our community, to keep at it, and not really be able to shelter in place. They are working and this is my way of recognizing them.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.