For his twentieth year living in Chicago, Ryan Bakerink devised a plan for a self-directed project to photograph in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods during the year, 2020. Little did he (or any of us) know what was about to happen. He took some time to speak with Esthetic Lens and offered to share with us a sample of his much larger and still ongoing project, Chicago2020.
1. How are you holding up?
I feel like I’m holding up well for the most part, but I have my moments. I miss traveling, I miss nights out with friends, I miss live music, but now more than ever I’m grateful for being a creative as I truly don’t know how to be bored. When the pandemic started, I quickly realized that this is a rare opportunity to go all-in on my work without any distractions. I’m an introvert/extrovert so I’m as equally motivated and energized in large groups as I am when I’m alone. I can handle being alone for long periods of time, so I feel like I’ve been handling this well, but if I were truly honest, it’s entirely possible that I’m just distracting myself with my work. When I slow down my anxiety starts to show itself so creating work has been my therapy through all of this.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
The pandemic has absolutely had an influence on my work, both in practice and in content. On January 1st I started a photography project called “Chicago 2020.” I came up with this concept in early 2019 when I realized that I moved to Chicago when I was 20 years old and I have lived in Chicago for 20 years. Throughout those 20 years, I have rarely created meaningful work about Chicago or within the city so 2020 was perfectly symbolic for me to do just that. My intention was to take a deep dive into Chicago by creating work in all 77 of Chicago’s official neighborhoods starting on January 1st and ending on December 31st. Having grown up in a small town in southwest Iowa, this project was meant to be a journey of self-exploration throughout Chicago as a way to help me understand the contrasts between who I was and who I am, and how Chicago has shaped me as an adult. Little did I know what kind of year this would be!
There’s the old saying that in order to master a craft you have to spend 10,000 hours practicing it. I have NOT spent 10,000 hours on my craft and I’m not even close to mastering it, but I can say that due to Covid-19, I have never had more time to focus on the craft. I took on this project knowing how difficult it would be to spend quality time in each neighborhood while balancing everyday life. Most bodies of work don’t have a hard start and stop date and even though I was the only person holding myself accountable to these boundaries, I had immediate anxiety once that clock started ticking on January 1st. For the first few months, it was clear to me that this project was going to be a challenge as I was not spending enough time in each neighborhood (and it showed in the work). The pandemic hit Chicago in Mid-March and once I realized that I could still practice social distancing while working on the project, I put every [available] waking hour into the work as there were no other obstacles in the way.
The pandemic, protests, and riots added additional layers of content to the project and my discipline turned to an obsession. It was (and still is) a challenge to keep up. I go at least one or two nights a week without sleep, either to shoot or edit. All of this is to say that the time and focus spent on one single project without distractions has led to personal breakthroughs in how I think about my work, and I’m not sure that these breakthroughs would have happened had I not had this extra time due to Covid-19.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
I’m more intentional in what I capture. I’m getting better at creating images that can tell their own story while being a part of a larger narrative. It’s hard to explain but my vision is making more sense to me, and although others may not see a change in my work, I’m understanding it more on a personal level. I’m hoping that this breakthrough is not temporary so the only way to make it permanent is to continue working at it. This project has also forced me to write more, which is a common weakness for photographers, so I plan to focus more on writing going forward.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
I think it’s the natural instinct of artists to respond to current events through their art and there’s plenty to draw from at the moment, so I’m not sure if the creatives I’m following are handling it well or if I’m just responding favorably to the art they’re creating. I actually think that creatives are likely handling this worse than most. I’ve always thought that we have heightened emotions so politics, social issues, and something like a pandemic hit us harder. I worry about those in creative fields a lot these days.
In general, the only people I see handing the pandemic well are people who have found an outlet that they can obsess over. The incredible singer/songwriter Brian Fallon was doing live streams twice a week where he would interview other musicians and talk about the creative process. I love hearing about one’s creative process no matter what type of art it is. Two friends that come to mind who are doing well have both started podcasts. My friend Jennifer started a podcast called Socially Awkward Social Distancing. She and her fiancé are putting all of their time and energy into this without even having to leave home, and they’re really enjoying it. My friend Jason started a podcast called Wish You Were HEAR which is a great travel podcast. Both of these friends were eager to start a podcast and the pandemic cleared the way for them, they’re loving it!
5. Are there any artists, filmmakers, albums, or genres you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?
When the pandemic started, I thought that I would finally get the time to binge-watch the incredible shows that I hear so much about. Unfortunately, so much of this great television is heavy on an emotional or conceptual level, and because our actual reality is what it is, I simply couldn’t handle it. I have no desire to experience fiction right now. I currently crave reality, honesty, and authenticity. Alternatively, I’ve turned to live stream concerts, podcasts, etc. I’ve joined online critiques; I’ve really enjoyed zoom artists’ talks and hearing about their creative process. This is a really great time to connect with artists from all over the world, I hope that people are taking advantage of it.
I’ve been drawn to a lot of music this year as it’s been an incredible year for it. A great emo/punk band called Spanish Love Songs released an album called Brave Faces Everyone which is basically a soundtrack to a pandemic. The album came out just before the pandemic started so it’s eerie just how relevant it is. It’s as if they knew it was coming. The brilliant singer/songwriter/producer Butch Walker released a Rock-Opera called American Love Story which was written a few years ago but released in May. This is another album that is coincidentally extremely pertinent as it addresses homophobia, sexism, white privilege, and the racial injustice issues we’re currently facing. On the surface, it sounds like happy 80’s pop-rock but with intense subject matter. It’s a fantastic emotional roller coaster and is a must-listen.
Great albums by Waxahatchee, Jason Isbell, Run the Jewels, Phoebe Bridgers, Ways Away, The Cold Years, Matthew Good, Ken Yates, and Jessie Ware, and so many others have all been released this year. It has truly been a great year for music.
Ryan Bakerink is a photographer in Chicago, IL, his work focuses on social issues, counterculture, travel, music, and portraiture. Ryan’s work can regularly be seen throughout the music industry, has been widely exhibited, and was recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly.
His Chicago2020 site can be found here.