‘Fucking mask wearers’ swore the elderly gent as he and his wife looked around the farm shop tea room. He meant me, and I’d have taken it more seriously, if moments before he hadn’t sworn at everybody for parking their cars incorrectly. Still, it was an interesting pairing: authoritarian and pseudo-libertarian in one go. Nobody had asked him to wear a mask, he was trying to stop others from doing so.
Before the pandemic I’d worn masks while taking photos in operating theatres, to protect the patients, and in polluted Kathmandu, to protect myself. Venturing out without one there would elicit concern, not anger.
I never imagined masks would become as divisive as the niqab. Both kinds of covering raise questions about who is protecting, being protected or being oppressed.
While in Nepal, in 2018, before the Covid pandemic, I photographed the euthanasia of a mule suffering from glanders, a dangerous zoonotic disease. In this instance the veterinary staff wore masks, not to protect the patient, but to protect themselves from the poor creature. I had no idea that soon we would all be mandated to wear masks to protect each other from another zoonotic infection.
Masks have now become a ubiquitous sight, discarded in our streets and parks. The act of dropping the mask, accidentally or deliberately, flips the mask from protector to threat, it switches category in an instant. My neighbour found me crouched in the gutter over my daylight studio box, photographing a discarded, but neatly folded, mask. He explained that he would never pick up a mask he dropped accidentally. It was defiled.
So they remain, in their millions, folded into rectangles, ingeniously balled up, stuffed into coffee cups, lying amongst crime-scene windscreen glass or on astroturf. Ready to be washed into the rivers, to become a real hazard.