the bigger picture

Intimate Portraits, Captured From a Distance

Tsarina Merrin documents the importance of community, even during strange times.

Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Photo: Tsarina Merrin

Tsarina Merrin, a native New Yorker, had recently started freelancing full-time as a photographer and filmmaker with plans to travel to SXSW with a band and then head out on a few tour dates with them in California, where she’d been living for the past three years. Unfortunately, the projects she had planned for the spring came to a halt when the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation. With all of the uncertainty, anxiety, and financial pressure starting to weigh on her during the first week of sheltering in place, she needed an escape. She needed something to do to make her feel better and take her mind off what she could not control, so she picked up her camera.

While being extremely cautious and maintaining social distance, she started taking portraits of her close friends in quarantine. She would document friends from outside their homes, capturing them on their porches, standing in doorways, or looking through windows. “Some have dressed up for the occasion, some have stayed in their PJs, some have been nude, and others have been in full drag,” she said.

As word of the series spread, videos of her using a tape measure to measure out six feet of distance were being shared on Instagram Stories. Her project with close friends turned into something larger scale with friends of friends and people she didn’t know wanting to be involved. Her small project became a joyous experience, bonding her and a large community of people going through a global crisis together.

“I’ve been getting to see people who haven’t had any new human interactions for days, if not weeks, at a time. They’re so happy to see me and excited to just chat for a minute. It was a moment to confide, to get something off our chests, or to admit to feeling the pressure and anxiety of the moment. There was a certain level of comfort that was established, and from there the authenticity of the person and their position was really able to come through in the images,” Merrin said.

While connecting with old friends and making new ones, one of her favorite moments in the process started to emerge: gift giving. If the person she was shooting knew she was shooting a friend of theirs later, they would give her a small gift or a message to pass on to them.

“One time a friend gave me three bags filled with lemons from a tree in her front yard to give as a gift to all the people I was on my way to see that day,” Merrin said. “That really made me smile. It felt like even though everyone was separated, we were all sharing in this experience and passing along compassion and friendship in a totally new way.”

Merrin’s hopes for the future are to continue to collaborate with as many different people as possible and build deeper connections with her subjects in future work. For this series, she would love to share all the portraits in a gallery space when the world opens up again.

In the meantime, she’s shared select images from the series with us, below.

Eve Harper Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Wandi Kabule Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Ryan Wheeler and Gabrielle Anise Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Aaron Deming, Chris Greatti, and Jordan Brasko Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Emmie Lichtenberg Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Parker Silzer IV Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Chelsea Gaspard Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Kayla Gallagher Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Marissa Bell Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Silken Weinberg Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Avery Tucker Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Harmony Tividad Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Noé, Caye, and Grow Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Lucy Bomba, Teddy Davis, Forrest Dawson, Elle Moran, and Keely Mettlen Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Cowgirl Clue Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Isabella Thomas Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Paris Photo: Tsarina Merrin
socialchair Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Ava DeGrinis Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Lilly and Ivy Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Chloe Chaidez Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Mickey Schiff Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Atiya Walcott Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Chris Greatti, Aaron Deming, and Jordan Brasko Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Dillon Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Disco Shrine Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Wrenn Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Kelsy Karter Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Madge Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Monet Berger Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Ruby Bryant Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Zolita Photo: Tsarina Merrin
Intimate Portraits, Captured From a Distance