My experience as a photojournalist in New York City during 2020.

In April, COVID-19 overwhelmed New York City.

As hundreds of deaths became thousands, death became our new normal. I traveled through eerily quiet, deserted streets across the five boroughs, documenting abandoned tourist destinations, desolate subway tunnels, emptied parks and locked up businesses.

We saw things you just don’t see in NYC. The USS Comfort crawling up the Hudson, the Javits Center converted into a military-style hospital, temporary facilities in Central Park. Temporary morgues grafted to hospitals across town.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

After everyone who could fled, the city became lifeless, schools and businesses going remote and a stay-at-home order adding to the drastic shift from hustle and bustle to deafening silence.

This was the first time I ever heard the wind blowing through the skyscrapers in the middle of Manhattan. The occasional car horn or sirens echoing in the distance, miles away in any direction, became a comforting sound, letting me know I wasn’t entirely alone. The silence was jarring, a subtle reminder of the danger that came with being outside as cases and deaths skyrocketed.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

Documenting became my way of managing the challenges we all experienced during the pandemic onset by isolation. As a photojournalist, I needed to see it for myself. It was historic, unprecedented, and I was awestruck by the emptiness of the world’s busiest city that I call home.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

From March to June I relentlessly documented life in New York City, which became one person for every three blocks, if that; Times Square, our famed tourist hub, empty; the streets of Midtown where thousands pass through daily, uninhabited; Rockefeller Center, shutdown, not a soul in sight. These are just a handful of the norms that persisted for months.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

Radio City Music Hall was one of the first iconic venues to close in New York City. It still remains shutdown.

New Yorkers are resilient, but the city suffered greatly.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

The man pictured above is one of the only people I interacted with in-person for months. Dr. Steve Kushnick from Westchester County works at Brooklyn Hospital where, at the time of this photo, he was part of the effort to treat COVID-19 patients. He was out doing street photography on his break when he noticed my camera and struck up a conversation. It felt like the only sense of normalcy either of us had for a while before that.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

From there, after a dogged battle to flatten the curve, some restrictions lifted, and I went home to Long Island to photograph what my home town looked like during the pandemic. I also missed my mother who I hadn’t seen in 5 months.

But I was only there for about a week when news broke that Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

My mother was watching the news, and from down the hall, I heard the broadcaster reporting that protests were gathering in the city. I joined my mother in the living room and watched the live aerial footage of Union Square, Manhattan, showing police attempting to disperse the crowd and meeting heated resistance. I packed my equipment and headed out the next day.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

I arrived in East Village, Manhattan, where I live, and immediately started documenting.

The disarray was outside of my door every day and night, news and NYPD helicopters buzzing overhead, serving as my guide to demonstrations when sources or social media proved unreliable.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

Police and protestors clashed nightly in the East Village and surrounding areas. Brooklyn also became the site of tense demonstrations.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

For ten days straight, as the city spiraled into chaos, I documented. Streets recently empty were suddenly filled with thousands of demonstrators. The result: major standoffs between protestors and police leading to prepper-spray and baton beatings, looters ransacking high-end stores in shopping districts and hundreds of arrests. On day one, I was pepper-sprayed twice, collateral damage as police fired indiscriminately into the crowds in front of Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

Pete, a 15-year-old high school student, is seen here being doused with milk. Medics on scene, identifiable by red tape crosses on their arm, were stationed throughout the protests. They used water, baking soda and milk mixed in baby bottles to treat those who had been pepper-sprayed. I left that day soaked in both milk and water.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

It was the third or fourth night when this NYPD vehicle was set ablaze. People gathered around, tires hissed and popped as they burned. Someone kept screaming that it was going to explode. It never did. It was a moment that felt like the police had lost control of the city entirely.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

These demonstrations came on the heels of New York City being established the epicenter of the world for the COVID-19 outbreak. Seeing the city empty due to the virus, flood with thousands of protestors, then again go back into lockdown because of the riots was surreal.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

At times, like when SOHO, New York’s high-end shopping district, was looted things were tense and safety was not guaranteed. But being there to capture it all is an experience I would not trade for anything.

Photo: Thomas Hengge

Protests raged throughout the Summer, Fall and continue now. But the tone has changed, and my focus has shifted. Rather than focus on the violence that pervades, though I am still capturing it when it happens, I am giving my attention to those working to bring about peaceful change. Those are the stories that I believe matter most. We cannot also ignore the dark, looming political shadow of 2020 & our distorted politics.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

In recent months, I have been chasing news and continuing to document life and events throughout New York City.

Like when the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought mourners to New York’s Supreme Court to celebrate and honor the Brooklyn-native’s impactful life.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

And the celebrations that erupted around the city after the announcement that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election.

Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge
Photo: Thomas Hengge

This was the first time in a long time that it felt like New York City cut loose.

My COVID-19 coverage has also come full circle. I have begun a project photographing families in the aftermath of losing a loved one to the virus. It has been a rewarding project, putting faces to the names and giving families an outlet to share theirs and their loved ones’ stories. It will be a long road, but my most fulfilling work yet. I am trying to find a home for the project and bring these stories to wider audiences.

Now, I am still photographing daily. In New York, there is something new and exciting around every corner. The city is about halfway back to life, for now anyway. With so much uncertainty there is still a lot of work to do, and I will continue to document.

Thomas Hengge is an New York-based photojournalist.

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