I started noticing them in December on one of the many walks, hikes and bike rides that became part of my routine during the pandemic: the sad little masks that once served as the last wall of defense against germs unwanted people were now unceremoniously tossed aside. I have seen this new trash can on sidewalks, on the streets, on hiking trails, in parks and on the beach. There was even one hanging from a tree branch – I guess it was placed there so the owner could retrieve the lost item if he retraced his steps?
Using my iPhone and the Hipstamatic app filters – which turn otherwise simple images into textured works of art – I started a pandemic project of documenting each one that I found along the way. I’ve always had a habit of looking down when I walk, due to too many awkward missteps and turned ankles, so it was easy to spot the masks littered with it. (Usually this habit leads me to find money: a $ 50 bill once crossing 13th and H streets in Northwest DC, and a $ 100 bill outside my favorite cafe in Seattle.)
I live in Northern California where the temperatures are fairly mild most of the year, so I managed to cover quite a few miles while hiking the trails and roads during the pandemic. I took pictures of masks around the Bay Area – at Funston Beach in San Francisco, Marin County from Larkspur to Novato – but also on a trip to Newport Beach in Southern California.
I photographed each mask as I found it, never moving one to make it more interesting. I wanted to document them in the natural state in which they were abandoned or dumped. I crouched down in the middle of the streets and on the sidewalks, receiving strange and inquiring glances from passers-by. My hiking partners waited for me on the trail as I worked on the perfect angle, twisting my body to get wildflowers or grass in the frame. I had the exasperated eye roll of my teenage daughter as I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, delighted to find some more PPE and embarrassing because I actually looked weird.
I can’t help but wonder if this new trash will become an environmental problem. Will seagulls and turtles get tangled in the face mask curls? Will landfills overflow with millions of used masks? Will they ultimately be banned for environmental reasons, as plastic bags have been in some communities?
In the meantime, the masks keep piling up. While writing this I took a break and went to my local grocery store. During the 45-minute hike, I found four discarded face masks – and added photos of them to my growing gallery.
Barbara Kinney is a senior photo editor and photographer for Emerson Collective. She was a White House photographer during the Clinton administration and was Hillary Clinton’s campaign photographer in 2008 and 2016. Her book “#StillWithHer: Hillary Clinton and the moments that sparked a movementDocuments Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency in 2016.
Design by Christian Font. Photo montage by Dudley M. Brooks.