Since the early days of COVID-19’s direct impact on Minnesota, Katie Howie has put her heart into a photo project titled “By a Thread: Pandemic Portraits.” Each poignant frame details someone in a line of work deemed essential—from medical to military and from U.S. Postal Service to grocery stores.
St. Paul-based Howie, 40, says she was inspired by her friends’ and families’ stories detailing the front lines, including her emergency medicine physician cousin, Dr. Frank Villaume IV. “I just wanted people to know what he was going through,” she says.
Plus, sheltering at home was, for a self-described extrovert, taking its toll. She saw that grief in others, and was moved to act. “This project is helping me handle my PD, my ‘pandemic despair,’ and give a platform to people who are risking so much to hold our society together,” she says. “With each session, I would learn of another participant—someone’s brother-in-law, neighbor, etc. The web this project is weaving is beautifully intricate.”
By late June, the professional portrait photographer by trade had amassed dozens and dozens of profiles featuring workers in front of their homes with family. These quick, intimate sessions have a feel all their own. “It’s not a glamour shot thing,” she notes. “I just tell people, ‘Come as you are. It’s okay that you haven’t had a haircut.’”
Howie always wears a face mask, works outdoors, and keeps at least 6 feet away from her subjects to minimize risk of transmission.
“I don’t know how or when it ends,” she says, noting wishes to showcase more pandemic-ravaged pieces of society, like the arts. “I get so emotionally drained from these interactions. I go into them and I want to do justice to their story and their experience.”
Dr. Sarah Schmitz-Burns
Howie’s first post for the “By a Thread” project was Schmitz-Burns, an OB/GYN. In order to maintain a PPE supply during the pandemic, Schmitz-Burns has taken to crowdsourcing on social media. More of Schmitz-Burns’ photos and more of her story here.
Now donning a mask and gloves for his mail delivery routes for the U.S. Postal Service, Barrett (photographed with husband Pete Groynom) has seen his role evolve throughout the pandemic. With more people home, he has more daily interactions with customers than ever before. More photos of Barrett and more of his story here and here.
Rebecca Wieben, CNP
The pandemic has moved Wieben, a critical care nurse practitioner, into direct contact with COVID-19 patients—some who recovered and some who died. This photo shoot moved her to tears. More of Wieben’s story and photos here.
Originally from Burkina Faso, West Africa, Kiemde (pictured with wife Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, their daughter, and dogs) is the pastry chef at P.J. Murphy’s Bakery in St. Paul. During the uprising following George Floyd’s death, Kiemde kept the shop open and baked more food for his neighbors. More photos of Kiemde and his story here and here.
Among college student Robinson’s many roles had been creating safe experiences for customers who check out at her register at a grocery store. (Her recent promotion moved her to online sales.) She insisted on smiling for her portraits. More photos of Robinson and her story here.
Dr. Lourdes Gomez Villaume and Dr. Frank Villaume IV
The Villaumes balance the demands of work that is already high-pressure under non-pandemic circumstances—emergency medicine for Frank, hospital medicine for Lourdes—with raising their two young children and keeping them healthy. More on the Villaumes here and here.