Esthetic Lens is happy to bring you the May installment of Ryan Bakerink’s monthly photography series, Chicago 2020. The genesis of the project came about as Bakerink entered his twentieth year of living in Chicago, having moved to the city at the age of twenty. Ryan has traveled and photographed on six continents, in forty countries, but had never focused his photographic work on the expansive city that he lives in. In May of 2020, the city erupted, voices became louder, and the lives of downtown business owners were changed overnight.
On May 1st, after building the courage to approach strangers for a portrait (at a safe distance), I began what would lead to several days of photographing people across the city. At the time, I assumed that wearing masks was a novelty, so I wanted to ensure I captured what I thought would be a brief, unique moment in our lives; time however proved that wearing a mask was not temporary.
I continued to scour the city on May 1st; anti-lockdown protesters gather at the Thompson Center to demand an end to the City’s stay-at-home order to reopen the state’s economy. A group of counter-protesters gathered, consisting of essential workers with signs asking for sympathy. Again, I felt that this protest was another brief novelty; instead, it was a preview of what was to come.
Through May, the city remained desolate, utterly devoid of human presence. The uncertainty about COVID-19 kept people inside, even as the weather was getting nicer and the days were getting longer. Signs of life were marked by signs encouraging you to wear a mask, wash your hands, stay inside, and call a loved one.
On May 20th, The Willis Tower lost power due to severe flooding from the Chicago River that spilled into the building’s basement. A building that dominates the Chicago skyline was both literally and figuratively powerless as it disappeared into the night sky.
Chicago was quiet and eerily beautiful. For one final moment, the city felt calm.
On May 25th, a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, was filmed pressing his knee on the neck of an unarmed black man named George Floyd, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, killing him as three other officers watched. The video of Floyd’s death goes viral; the four officers involved are fired the next day.
On May 30th, a Black Lives Matter protest was scheduled at Daley Plaza to protest the killing of George Floyd and years of police injustice towards African Americans, including Breanna Taylor. A crowd of several thousand carried signs, wore face masks, and bore shirts with slogans like “I Can’t Breathe.” By 4 pm, the crowd split into several groups heading in different directions. Naively, I thought the protests are over; I returned home for the evening. Later that night that I hear the demonstrations turned violent and Mayor Lightfoot imposes a curfew on the city, lasting nightly from 9 pm to 6 am until further notice.
The Illinois National Guard is summoned to the downtown area Sunday morning by Governor J.B. Pritzker, declaring he is following a request from Mayor Lightfoot. “I want to be clear and emphasize: The Guard is here to support our Police Department,” says Lightfoot. “They will not be actively involved in policing and patrolling.” The decision is considered the first time since 1968 that a Chicago mayor had asked for the National Guard’s help in dealing with civil unrest and disturbances.
On May 31st, a whole new layer of complexity unfolds and compounds on an already tumultuous year. I was determined to find my way into the downtown Loop area to photograph the aftermath of the previous day’s events. The drawbridges over the Chicago river remained raised, preventing people from entering the Loop from the north and west sides; CTA trains were bypassing the Loop entirely. From the south, the streets were blocked off by city trucks. After three hours of attempting to get into the Loop, I finally realized that, unlike the north and west sides, the Chicago River doesn’t block the Loop from the south; there wouldn’t be drawbridges up preventing me from entering. I drove to Chinatown, rented a Divvy bike, navigated my way through alleys, around the city truck blockades, and finally found my way into the Loop. Once I entered, the police and National Guard did not seem to mind my presence. The few people I did come across were wandering around in pure shock.
Almost every business in the Loop was affected by the looting; downtown Chicago felt like a post-apocalyptic movie set. There were no other photographers downtown; I felt that this movie set was solely mine to capture. Banks and Jewelry shops were quickly being boarded up, several restaurants and coffee shops were not being attended to at all. Some businesses were still being looted while I was photographing; in some places, blood covered the sidewalk. I felt empty, not sad or shocked, just completely devoid of any emotion. I had only felt this way once before when I was in Chernobyl.
Central Camera, a business with special meaning to me was looted and set on fire the night before; their iconic sign remained intact. A week prior, I had created an image of the storefront while it was still unharmed; eight days later, I recreated the image after the looting and the fire. While taking the picture, the store’s owner, Don Flesch came up to me and handed me a [McDonalds] hamburger and smiled. A local news reporter then interviewed him, I listened in on the conversation. His good nature humbled me; he was not upset and understood the reasoning behind the protests and rioting; he would rebuild. I kept the hamburger in my pocket the rest of the day to remind me to stay positive. My emptiness was filled with hope and inspiration; it was the motivation I needed at that exact moment.
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.