Kŏuzhào, 2020

As China continues the battle against the outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19, the everyday lives of its citizens are drastically impaired. All schools and most businesses remains closed, with many cities resembling desolate ghost towns. In some quarantined areas, people are only allowed to leave their homes for a short period of time every two days to stock up on supplies; even in non-quarantined regions people are strongly advised – and in some cases, threatened by neighbours – to stay inside and only go out if absolutely necessary. Whichever way, no one braves the outside world without a kŏuzhào, a protective mask that covers the nose and mouth. Qingdao, a coastal city of 9 million people to the east of Beijing, has been fortunate enough to escape total lockdown. With 53 confirmed virus cases its situation is not critical; still, with fear of infection sweeping the entire nation, many of its citizens opts to stay indoors, under what has become known as citywide “self-quarantine”. There are some among them, however, who defies the warnings and continues their afternoon outings to the city’s famous (and usually bustling) promenades. Breathing with some difficulty through my own kŏuzhào as I photographed these masked, anonymous wanderers – marginalised in the haunted light – I couldn’t help but wonder what drove them from the relative safety of their homes. Is it a yearning for normality under extraordinary duress? Is there a sense of defiance, or even rebellion, in their eyes? Or is it merely a grave, stoic resignation? In a time and place that is thoroughly testing the human spirit, the ultimate question remains: what lies behind the mask?