Making It in the Bay

Bay Area Photographer Trying to Survive COVID-19, One Image at a Time

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The call of photography was always in Rhett Jones' periphery. It followed him from high school and to college. It was there even when he was working a corporate job at Chevron. The notion of peering through a viewfinder, framing that shot and clicking the shutter -- nagged at him until he finally surrendered.

"I’d been at Chevron for 12 years," Jones said. "I just realized it wasn't the place for me anymore. And I decided to go full-time doing photography."

With his wife's blessing, the Oakland man traded in the corporate gig and started his own photography business. There were birthday parties, anniversaries -- he was now on the lens end of the corporate headshots.

But the photography business Jones built over several years, was immediately taken away as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the nation. Weddings were gone, along with the corporate shoots and birthday parties.

"People started cancelling," Jones said, "or pushing out their event a year."

With the money side of his profession shut down, Jones turned to the creative side to get through the hard times. He went on Nextdoor and offered to shoot free black and white photos of families standing on their porches as sort of a COVID diary. He ended up photographing more than 40 families.

"I think it’s a good way for us to kind of capture this moment of what’s going on," he said.

In the midst of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd in police custody triggered a nationwide soul-searching over race relations and scattered justice.

As a Black man, the image of Floyd crumpled on the asphalt with a knee to his neck affected Jones deeply. He saw himself there. On that same asphalt. With that same knee.

He thought of the times he'd gone to do real estate photography, fretting over the perception of a Black man carrying expensive camera equipment out of an empty home. He'd been pulled over by police many times. He knew how those things could go.

"But kind of what seeing what happened to him, could happen to me,"Jones said of Floyd's death. "There’s no reason it wouldn’t happen to me."

Jones recalled an incident that unfolded just weeks after Floyd died. Jones had his son in the car when it began to overheat. He walked into a 7-Eleven store to buy coolant. Outside the store, he discovered the bottle was damaged. When he walked back in to return in, the clerk accused him of tampering with it and threatened to call the police.

Out of fear of what might happen with the police, Jones left.

"The real issue I had was, I was with my son," Jones said. "And my son is kind of asking why is this guy calling the police when you didn’t do anything wrong?"

Jones didn't let the event slide. He called the store manager who agreed to meet with Jones and his son.

"He offered an apology, which is kind of all I wanted from him," Jones said, "and for my son to see that."

On the business side, the door that COVID-19 slammed shut, has begun to crack open again.

Jones has gotten booked for more corporate headshots as professionals seek to re-brand themselves and apply for new jobs in the age of pandemic. He takes what he calls generational pictures -- with an older family member holding a picture of a younger one. He gets a lot more calls these days to photograph families, which he credits to the pandemic.

"You recognize what’s important as you hear more people are passing away due to COVID," he said.

The passion that first drew him to photography is still there. He'll easily sit up all night editing photos -- time just seeming to slide by as he pours himself into the thing he loves.

"Once I’m in it, and I’m shooting," he said, "that’s actually the fun part."

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