This month, we had the privilege of getting to know Austin-based photographer, Sarah Wilson, who created ESSENTIALS, a public art project that celebrates women who are essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about Sarah's project, ESSENTIALS, and what's on the horizon, check out the full interview below!
Q: What inspired you to participate in the ArtsResponders program?
A: As the pandemic set in and our community was asked to shelter in place, I quarantined with my immediate family.
As a photographer, my work was not deemed essential, but something about the word ‘essential’ really spoke to me. I became especially grateful for the workers that were keeping our community safe and moving forward. I started to think about the women workers, many of whom were juggling responsibilities at home, while facing this public health crisis due to their 'essential' work. Inspired by these women, I felt an overwhelming need to recognize their courage, so I started taking portraits of essential women workers in Austin, on location, outside, at their workplace.
As the body of work started to expand, I decided to submit the work to the City of Austin Museums and Cultural Programs grant, called ArtsResponders: Social Practice Responds to COVID-19. I was excited that the project was selected, but that was just the beginning. The work has since taken on a new, exciting form. We started calling upon Austinites to nominate the essential women workers in their lives. We chose 15 honorees to photograph, out of over 100 nominations, and instead of having an indoor gallery show, we’ve decided to present the work as large-scale wheat-pasted portraits on the sides of participating buildings throughout Austin.
Q: What has been the best thing to come from this project?
A: There have been many great things that have come from this project, including meeting so many amazing women. Yesterday on Instagram, I saw that a nurse had taken a photo of herself next to the large-scale portrait of an ICU nurse. In the comments, she said that she loved seeing these 19 foot tall portraits, and felt that her hard work on the frontline was also being recognized. YES! That’s the whole point! Each of these women represents many more who have worked so hard to keep our community safe and moving forward.
Q: Can you share one of the most valuable takeaways or things you have learned from the testimonies?
A: Every woman I’ve photographed loves their job. They’ve found what inspires them, keeps them interested, and on their toes. And one thing that’s been in common with all of the participants, is that their jobs put them directly in touch with the community. They are helping people, and elevating the good in humankind.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about this project?
A: I want people to know that these women are not models or actors, but real people. I hope these large-scale portraits will help people recognize the brave work that essential workers have done since the beginning of the pandemic, and will continue to do when it’s over.
Q: What’s on the horizon for Sarah Wilson Photography?
A: I’m brainstorming on ways to expand the ESSENTIALS project- more women, more walls! I’m also working on a photography book, to be published next spring, about my late paleontologist grandfather and our shared connection to the West Texas desert. I’ve been going on digs every year, searching for fossils and photographing. This is a story about family, discovery, adventure, and perspective on the slow, significant work of evolution.
*ESSENTIALS recognizes all women essential workers, including gender fluid/non-binary, and trans women.