By Erin Bank
Photographers and partners Kevin Kelleher and Emily Trinh left their Sunset District apartment with their cameras one day in March, hoping to capture the setting sun. Cloudy weather put a wrench in their plans, but they turned their aimless walk into an opportunity to bring positivity and connection at a time of uncertainty and fear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelleher and Trinh were both struggling due to a decrease in work as a result of the shelter-in-place orders.
“I was frustrated,” Kelleher said. “I still wanted to be able to go out and shoot.”
“I was so sad, I was devastated,” Trinh added.
Trinh, originally from Vietnam and now a student at City College of San Francisco, usually shot photos of fancy weddings. Her work with luxury Indian fashion has been highlighted in Vogue. But those weddings were no longer happening.
Kelleher, originally from Boston, had left an internship at the SF Examiner and had been bouncing between jobs. But the pandemic made it impossible to find solid work.
The couple met a year ago at the top of the tiled steps at Moraga Street and 15th Avenue, where they had both ascended to photograph the sunset. Although they shared a common passion and supported each other’s work, they had yet to work on a project together.
“We came up with the idea: let’s ask people what’s positive and get a portrait of them,” Kelleher said.
As they walked, they saw John and Bella across the street in perfect lighting from a break in the clouds.
“They were out, they were laughing, he put his arm around her. That’s what I want to shoot, so I’m gonna try,” Kelleher said. “They were really receptive.”
John and Bella (who declined to share their last names) realized how special this was.
“Since shelter-in-place started, we’ve been taking walks almost every day,” Bella said. “We met them first about three blocks from our place. When they approached us, we thought, sure, why not? We’re not really talking to or meeting new people.”
“We talked for about 20 minutes,” John said.
“Both John and Kevin are talkers,” Bella laughed.
“It’s refreshing that someone is taking a very unusual situation and making a positive spin,” she continued.
This positive spin is the question Kelleher asks while Trinh takes the pictures: what has been positive for you during the pandemic?
“I say, ‘I know this sucks,’ because it gets their attention. We’re all focused on the negative right now, but I just open up,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher and Trinh have since photographed and interviewed more than 50 people from the Sunset, Castro, Financial District and the Mission. They are posting quotes and the photographs on their website (link below). Their subjects range from essential workers to people out for walks, from young to old, diverse in race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Some have easily found things to be grateful for, and others are having a more difficult time.
The work they have done in their own Sunset neighborhood has been particularly meaningful.
“I love this neighborhood,” Kelleher said. “When you pass by someone on Irving Street, you acknowledge them. It’s family.”
In general, people have been willing to engage when Kelleher and Trinh have approached them. They offer the high-quality portraits in exchange for a few moments of time.
What has been positive for Kelleher and Trinh? How would they answer their own question?
They both choked up speaking about the chance to work together, to grow as individuals and as a couple.
“I’ve seen Kevin grow so much,” Trinh said. “It’s wonderful to see him focused on giving back to people.”
“Photography is a way for us to open up to the world and have connection in a disconnected time,” Kelleher said. “I really think that what we’re doing now matters.”
John felt their impact. “We need intervention in the world, to create context and positivity, and I thought they were doing that,” he said.
Kelleher and Trinh aim to feature 100 subjects for their “A Break in the Clouds” project. After that, they hope to continue projects focused on individual stories to tell the story about how lives will change during recovery and beyond.
For more information, visit www.kemilyvisuals.com/a-break-in-the-clouds.