These photos reveal a hushed world

Empty beaches, still streets, sleeping children—photographers capture a world quieted by coronavirus.

By Rachel Hartigan
Published 4 May 2020, 15:58 BST
Athens, Greece

"After all these years I've been living in Athens, I feel the city has changed drastically in a few days," says photographer Enri Canaj. "There is a deep melancholic feeling, like the city's energy is vanishing slowly."

Photograph by Enri Canaj, Magnum Photos

Cities are empty. Music is silenced. The air has cleared. The Earth has stilled.

The pandemic has brought quiet, at least to some. Noise still fills hospitals crowded with coronavirus patients and homes containing pent-up kids. But quiet can be found in streets emptied of cars, in shuttered businesses, and in those times when there’s no place to go and nothing to do but listen to the soft sounds that used to be drowned out by our busy lives.

Photographers, confined like the rest of us, are capturing those moments of silence, of reflection, of clarity. In New York, a photographer, alone and sick with COVID-19, notices sunlight illuminating his parents’ portrait. In California, a couple cherishes a moment alone near the sea. In Poland, a library seems more hushed than it’s ever been, and in Spain, an ornate carousel has come to a stop.

How are people experiencing this new quiet? National Geographic and Magnum Photos photographers bring you a global look at how coronavirus is affecting the worlds they see inside—and just outside—their windows.

Amman, Jordan: In the courtyard of an Islamic charity centre, a woman finds a narrow spot of shade where she waits for aid to be distributed.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos

New York, USA: Out-of-service taxi cabs fill a parking lot. "As a born-and-raised New Yorker," says photographer Celeste Sloman, "the quiet that we are experiencing now is something unfathomable, calming, surreal, and profoundly unsettling at the same time."

Photograph by Celeste Sloman

Massachusetts, USA: "Today the light took different paths," says photographer John Stanmeyer. "One of the many trees outside a window in the living room reminded me that she was still there."

Photograph by John Stanmeyer

Nesoddtangen, Norway: "We are having the first days of real spring, and all the foliage and flowers are starting to blossom," says photographer Jonas Bendiksen. "The quiet days without running off somewhere all the time has made me really grateful to have all this right where I live."

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos

New York, USA: "I didn't tell my family that I was isolated and sick in bed for three weeks with COVID-19," says photographer Ismael Ferdous. "That time was the quietest in recent memory. I looked forward to the moment every day when the light would hit my shelf and illuminate my parents, who are back in Bangladesh."

Photograph by Ismail Ferdous

Las Vegas, USA: "I've spent very little time in this city," says photographer Daniella Zalcman, "but my experiences have always been of extremes: opulence, lights, crowds, noise. It's strange and a little unsettling to drive along the Las Vegas Strip without seeing the usual chaos."

Photograph by Daniella Zalcman

Minnesota, USA: "I’ll never stop relearning the same lesson," says photographer Alec Soth. "A photograph doesn’t depict a thing; rather, it depicts light bouncing off of a thing. To absorb this lesson, it’s just a matter of quieting oneself and paying attention."

Photograph by Alec Soth, Magnum Photos

California, USA: "As crazy as it sounds," says Alexis Frutos (in red), "sitting behind a fence is as free as I have felt for the last few months." She and Kailey James (in black) live together with three others in an apartment in Long Beach.

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky

London, UK: "I take pictures of flowers in the garden, in the park, mainly because I like flowers," says photographer Chris Steele-Perkins, "I send them to my wife, who is in Japan, and say, 'Look, the rhododendrons are in full bloom in Dulwich Park' or 'The tulips are fading.'"

Photograph by Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

New York, USA: Before the pandemic, photographer Elias Williams would often hear people passing beneath his apartment window in the Bronx. "With most people staying indoors this all happens infrequently," he says, "amplifying the dragging sound of car traffic, hair-raising ambulance sirens, and the gentle chime for closing doors on the trains underground."

Photograph by Elias Williams

Fécamp, France: With only a few children attending daycare, there are plenty of quiet moments for a story.

Photograph by Jean Gaumy, Magnum Photos

Florence, Italy: "Normally, walking around Florence, I would have heard the sound of dozens of different languages," says photographer Gabriele Galimberti. "For two months now, silence has been the soundtrack of my walks in the city, only sometimes broken by the voice of a policeman calling out to check what I'm doing."

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti

Rochester, USA: "On the one hand, there's never any quiet in my life because my kids are home all day," says photographer Gregory Halpern, who took this portrait of his six-year-old daughter. "On the other hand, there's a deeper sense of quiet than perhaps I've ever had."

Photograph by Gregory Halpern, Magnum Photos

Setubal, Portugal: "Our pace has changed," says photographer Matthieu Paley. "All the coming and going to visit friends, go to guitar or drawing classes, etc., all this has stopped."

Photograph by Matthieu Paley

"After all these years I've been living in Athens, I feel the city has changed drastically in a few days," says photographer Enri Canaj. "There is a deep melancholic feeling, like the city's energy is vanishing slowly."

Photograph by Enri Canaj, Magnum Photos

Montreal, Canada: "Quietness does not always come with sorrow or sadness," says photographer Zied Ben Romdhane. "In my surroundings, I feel more an invitation to contemplate what is essential to bring joy or at least tranquility to one's life."

Photograph by Zied Ben Romdhane, Magnum Photos

Delhi-NCR, India: "After six weeks of staying indoors," says photographer Smita Sharma, "I finally ventured out to get a sense of what was happening in the vicinity of my house." At a once busy intersection, she came across this migrant worker selling vegetables. "It felt strangely silent."

Photograph by Smita Sharma

Miami, Florida: Reflected in a rain puddle, the Celebrity Equinox is empty except for the crew members who clean and maintain the massive cruise ship.

Photograph by Maggie Steber

Paris, France: Pigeons flock to the only people in the Louvre's empty courtyard.

Photograph by Patrick Zachmann, Magnum Photos

Petaluma, USA: "The woman in the sun came from Berkeley to find the quiet of nature at this small pebble beach alongside the Russian River," says photographer Jim Goldberg. "Few cars pass by on the bridge above her. The only sounds are of birds and the rippling water."

Photograph by Jim Goldberg, Magnum Photos

Milan, Italy: "These quarantine days I spend a lot of time with my son," says photographer Andrea Frazzetta. "The quiet only returns within the walls of the house when he falls asleep. Today he told me he had a beautiful dream: His own toys had started talking to him."

Photograph by Andrea Frazzetta

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: "In the late afternoon, rolling thunder marks the arrival of a tropical downpour as lightning illuminates the darkened sky and all below it momentarily," says photographer Ian Teh. "After the rain, the sweet scent of wet leaves drifts through the window, its lingering air cool against the skin."

Photograph by Ian Teh

Bucerias, Mexico: Photographer César Rodriguez was walking on the beach when a woman on a horse passed him. "The wind was against her so I couldn't hear the steps of the horse," he says. "She appeared and went fast, like a mirage."

Photograph by César Rodriguez

Silver Spring, Maryland: "With fewer cars on the normally busy main road near our home, we’ve started hearing the chorus of songbirds migrating through the area," says photographer Greg Kahn. "With the chirping as the soundtrack, my three-year-old daughter spends quiet time using the windows as her canvas."

Photograph by Greg Kahn

Thokoza, South Africa: Even during the pandemic lockdown, "this view is literally the only truly quiet place you'll find in the township," says photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa. "It is also where my father is laid to rest."

Photograph by Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Magnum Photos

New York, USA: "I took this photo in the early days of the stay-at-home order in New York," says photographer Peter Van Agtmael. "I was trying to reckon with the eeriness of an empty city, with the knowledge that the worst was about to come."

Photograph by Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

Barcelona, Spain: Carlos Hernandez (left) and Rocio Cano, journalists from a local news program, report on the city's empty beaches.

Photograph by Paolo Verzone, Vu

Madrid, Spain: "With 6.5 million inhabitants, the city is mute and empty," says photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero. "You only hear the sounds of some cars or footsteps on the way to the supermarkets and pharmacies."

Photograph by Cristina García Rodero, Magnum Photos

Brighton, England: A sunlit corner helps photographer Mark Power's daughter Chilli continue to work toward her fine art degree, despite the lockdown.

Photograph by Mark Power, Magnum Photos

Milan, Italy: "As I was taking a shower, I realised something was moving to my left," says photographer Camilla Ferrari. "It was my reflection on the wet surface of the shower box. I felt less lonely."

Photograph by Camilla Ferrari

Topanga Canyon, USA: "One of our outside chairs is being taken over by weeds," says photographer Karla Gachet. "This is a reminder of time going by, even though our days seem to blend into each other and we feel suspended, waiting for the normal."

Photograph by Karla Gachet

Tehran, Iran: "This normally is one of the busiest streets in our neighbourhood," says photographer Newsha Tavakolian. "There are traffic jams, buses that zip by, and people navigating the traffic. I never thought I would see this street so quiet."

Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian, Magnum Photos

"Sequestered here on Cape Cod, I wander the quiet, deserted beaches of my childhood hometown," says photographer Alex Webb, "following the subtle movements of time and tide, wind and water."

Photograph by Alex Webb, Magnum Photos
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has resulted in most Magnum photographers being restricted in their movements. As part of a broader photographer-led response, a new series “Diary of a Pandemic” will present selections of new work, while "Quarantine Conversations," will present Magnum photographers in frank and unedited dialogues about work, current affairs, and everything in-between. Follow Magnum Photos on Instagram.
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