In more typical times, when Texas Monthly commissions photography for a story, we’re usually seeking to capture the presence of something: the life of a particular person, perhaps, or a specific event with economic or cultural import. But in mid-March, just as most Texans were being placed under shelter-in-place orders for the first time, we dispatched photographers all across the state to chronicle something entirely different: absence. What did Texas look like as it came to an unprecedented standstill?

One of those photographers, Austin-based Tamir Kalifa, described what it was like to cover this historic moment:

“I’ve documented hurricanes, a volcano, mass violence, and more—events that are often defined by immediate destruction and collective grief. Because the havoc wreaked by this pandemic is unfolding largely in hospitals, and in private, I was tasked with documenting the transformation of cities from bustling metropolises to near ghost towns.

The mighty roar of our beloved Texas cities had faded to a whisper as people across the state huddled indoors to flatten the pandemic’s curve. Places usually brimming with energy, like Houston’s downtown or the University of Texas at Austin’s Forty Acres, were almost vacant. But they weren’t entirely devoid of life.

One particularly jarring moment on this assignment was seeing Austin’s Sixth Street boarded up and hollowed out, which instantly reminded me of storm preparations. Yet as soon as the boards went up, they also became canvasses for local artists, who painted encouraging messages of hope and resilience during these trying times. I felt that was just as important to capture as the emptiness.

After photographing for three days, I was relieved to return to the comfort and safety of my home. The experience of feeling anxious simply for being outside profoundly deepened my appreciation for those who are putting themselves at risk every day, the medical professionals, first responders, restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and more who are supporting the rest of us.”