Bill Hayes is a renowned author and photographer who surprised us happily with How We Live Now, his poignant and profound tribute to human connection in a city amidst a pandemic.
In How We Live Now, author and photographer Bill Hayes offers an ode to our shared humanity, capturing in real time this strange new world we’re now in. As he wanders the increasingly empty streets of Manhattan, Hayes meets fellow New Yorkers and discovers stories to tell, but he also shares the unexpected moments of gratitude he finds from within his apartment, where he lives alone, trying to keep busy and not bored as he adjusts to enforced solitude with reading, cooking, reconnecting with loved ones, reflecting on the past–and writing.
A bookstore where readers shout their orders from the street. A neighbourhood restaurant turned take-away where one has a shared drink—on either end of a bar—with the owner. These scenes, among many others, became the new normal as soon as the world began to face the COVID-19 pandemic. Featuring Hayes’s inimitable street photographs, How We Live Now chronicles an unimaginable moment in time, offering a long-lasting reminder that what will gets us through this unprecedented, deadly crisis is each other.
Bill Hayes is the author of Insomniac City and The Anatomist, and a collection of his street photography, How New York Breaks Your Heart is also published by Bloomsbury. Hayes is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. Hayes has completed the screenplay for a film adaptation of Insomniac City,
currently in the works from Hopscotch Features, and he is also a co-editor of Oliver Sacks’s posthumous books. He lives in New York.
What was the idea behind the “How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic” and how did you decide to write this book?
I wish I could take full credit, but the idea came from my editor and my publishing house. I have been lucky to have the same editor for my full publishing career. I am on my sixth book now, and I have the same editor all these years. Her name is Nancy Miller and she knows me well. As the pandemic was approaching like a tsunami ready to take over the United States, she contacted me and suggested I wrote a photographic book about the pandemic and of what we were all about to face. I immediately said YES and found it a great idea. I am a street photographer and I was already out and about taking pictures, so I had to start thinking of how this could be converted to a short book that would cover the first 100 days of the pandemic in the New York. The book is meant to be a time capsule, capturing the first days of the pandemic in real life.
What I found very interesting about the book was the fact that it felt personal and I could find out certain aspects of your life. And that made it very relatable and confessional and enjoyable.
I knew from the beginning that this book was not going to be a comprehensive book about an entire global pandemic. It was just going to be focused on my little corner of the world and would be as personal and honest as possible.
How did this pandemic affect your life?
The city that I had fallen in love with when I moved here almost 12 years ago, the New York city I knew, changed in just one night. And this is what I wanted to capture in this book; how the life of someone can virtually change overnight. I wanted to give people that feeling of before and after, while preserving at the same time some romantic feelings through photographs. changed in a night. I had never seen again the 8th Avenue from my window so empty. I was scared that I would never see the 8th Avenue filled with people, but now I can confirm that the city is quite active now.
Did it feel lonely?
Pretty lonely. I am single and I live alone and I missed a lot the contact of friends and family. It was spooky and lonely and I manged to capture the loneliness, the isolation, the fear and boredom and the tragicness of this pandemic in photographs. What I missed most is the lively spirit of New York and the unexpected encounters, the spontaneity of seeing people in the street and calling your friends to ask them to meet for a drink, and just going out.
Has your daily routine and everyday life changed from what you describe in your book?
My everyday life has changed completely. At the moment it is definitely more active, while the city feels like a wounded place. I am lucky I leave my apartment and can go to the gym and to the swimming pool again, and that in itself is a gift! But everything is more limited now. I have not travelled for at least a year, and I am looking forward to travelling again. It seems that people have picked up their pieces and New York and have adapted. I am continuously amazed with the creativity and the ingenuity of the shopkeepers and the people who find their way, like for example the charming outdoor spaces that have been created these days to keep people safe in the hospitality sector. I took the opportunity to find time for myself and do things I normally would not do. It is the first time in my life I have read so much and I have really come to love the idea of making time to read. And also, the idea of keeping myself busy. There have been many acts of kindness though these days and this is so beautiful.
How has the pandemic affected the LGBTQ+ life in New York?
For sure. For example, the gay bar that I describe in the beginning of the book where I find love in an encounter, is closed. Not sure if this permanent or just temporarily. There is another gay bar across the street closed, and many gay venues in the Christopher street are empty, making this street look empty. This pandemic has hit our community gathering places hard. On the other hand, one of the beautiful things that this pandemic brought was the eruption of activism after the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives movement, which then triggered other movements, especially the marches and protests for trans people. Where there couldn’t be a Pride parade, there were people out there marching and having their voices heard.
Do you think this pandemic has transformed our characters irreversibly?
I think there is no doubt that the city has changed, and that we have changed. There is a lot of trauma that we will be dealing. Those scars will be with us, but we will built upon them, so we can leave this behind us.
Do you feel more as an author or as a photographer?
I really feel like a writer and a photographer. Saying I am an artist sounds a bit pretentious, but I feel like an artist, a writer, a photographer, and a screenplay writer at the moment as I am writing a screenplay for a film based on my book “Insomniac City”.
Who are the people you admire and your inspirations?
Probably, my deepest inspiration and greatest role model comes from my latest partner Oliver Sacks who was the model of a prolific, creative and brilliant writer. What mattered to him was simply to write. And there was a point that I describe in my book, where he comes to me a little bit before he dies and says “The only thing we can do is to write, critically, creatively, evocatively, about what it is to leave in this world at this time.” What I learned from him was to maintain one’s curiosity towards the individuality of every human being.
What do you like most about learning other people’s stories?
I love the unexpected, spontaneous encounter with another human being that can be very magical. No matter if it is a connection of seconds or minutes, I am always open to these encounters with people.
You have described your adult life as “coloured by death” – the deaths you dealt with in his AIDS Foundation work, the sudden death of your longtime partner in San Francisco, and later the death of your partner Oliver Sacks. How have these incidents affected your life? Are you afraid of death?
These incidents definitely have affected my life. I came out at the age of 24 in San Fransisco, and the AIDS reality was life-changing. I learned not to take life for granted and that life can be very short indeed. The death of my partner at that time who was HIV positive from an unexpected heart attack, taught me not to take any day in life for granted. This had a deep impact on me and made me less afraid of death.
With the way you speak and write you give a lot of positivity and hope to people. Where does this positivity come from?
I have been told that people feel that I am keeping them company while they are reading my book, which I think it is a great company, especially now that there are a lot of people who are isolated and lonely. I think is how I have always been, and that New York has brought that out a lot from me and the experiences of my life have definitely shaped me. I have a deep appreciation for the life I have and I try to stay open and curious towards other human beings.
What are your future plans?
I am working at the moment on the screenplay of the “Insomniac City” and soon I will be working on another screenplay, which is too early to reveal. Also, I will be finishing a book that I have been working on for years and I completely right before the pandemic. It is called “Sweat” and it is the history of exercise. This pandemic taught me to be open to change and pivoting, which what I want to mention in this book that will be adapted to the situation we are now facing.
-Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
Just that I miss London and I look forward to visiting it soon.
*all images are courtesy of Bill Hayes
More of Bill Hayes at www.billhayes.com