She tells COVID-19 stories 'Firsthand'

CARL RUSSO/staff photoJessica Furtado of Haverhill photographed city residents along with an item of significance to them that is helping them get through the COVID-19 crisis.

Local photographer Jessica Furtado had already committed to a month-long exhibit at a creative space downtown when, in March, she was forced to make a tough decision.

When the coronavirus crisis hit, she chose not to let it interfere with her photo exhibit. Instead, she embraced the crisis, even deciding to make the world’s mess into the message of her exhibit.

“A silver lining of the pandemic is that I was pretty close to canceling my residency (exhibit), and when I was thinking how I could still make a socially distanced project happen, I came up with the idea for Firsthand,’’ she said of the name of her exhibit, ‘‘and how I could make people feel comfortable to come out and participate.”

Furtado, who lives in Haverhill, is a children’s librarian. She does portrait photography in her spare time.

The creative downtown space called The Switchboard, run by Hailey Moschella and Sarah LoVasco, regularly hosts artists like Furtado at the gallery space, allowing them to work there so local people can drop in and see how their creative process comes together.

Furtado signed on for a June residency there and developed a COVID-19 friendly photography project in which she took pictures of nearly 60 people — “ages 5 to 65,” she said — each holding an item that proved meaningful to them during the quarantine period. Some people showed pets, while others displayed art projects they worked on during the quarantine, Furtado said.

All of the people were photographed wearing masks. About a third of the subjects live in Haverhill, with others — who heard about the project on social media — coming from as far away as Newton, Massachusetts, and Wilmington to participate.

“My style of photography is very casual, so I’d chat with them as I took photos,” said Furtado, who used Haverhill landmarks as backdrops for portraits whenever possible. “Some people would share very personal stories and it took others a while to let their guard down.”

Furtado said grief and loss were common themes. Some people brought photos of loved ones they lost to COVID-19 or people they couldn’t see during the pandemic, she said.

“It was so impactful to see how people are experiencing genuine pain and loss as a result of what we’re living through together,” Furtado said. “To be able to see and engage with all these people changed the way I think about how human connection can be made — that it can be instant. It shows people that we’re not alone in this, even though we’re all physically distanced from each other.”

Furtado showed off her portraits during a recent free exhibit at The Switchboard.


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