Wear a mask. It’s a simple request, one that involves the most minor inconvenience and can save countless lives.
Seems easy enough, right? Not so much.
The mask itself has become the center of political debates across the country, the focal point of hundreds of videos showing people throwing temper tantrums in public and claiming their rights are being infringed upon.
Many on the right have even implied that wearing a mask signals a lack of masculinity or independence.
It would be comical if it wasn’t so dangerous.
A new photo series from Charlotte artist Laura Wopperer titled Mask With Me consists of portraits showing notable Charlotte business owners, students, and children in all their masked and unmasked glory, in an attempt to push back against the incomprehensible narratives promoted by right-wingers and all-around trolls on the internet.
Like other entrepreneurs in Charlotte, her business came to a halt upon the arrival of COVID-19 in March, and she longed for a creative outlet during the stay-at-home order.
“The idea for the masking project truly came to me out of the blue after several months of quarantining, social distancing and the realization that this was our new normal for a potentially very long time,” says Wopperer.
She utilized local connections built over a 10-year career in Charlotte to kick off the Mask With Me project.
The photo series was the perfect opportunity to challenge her creatively while also serving a greater purpose.
Who’s Behind the Mask?
The concept behind the photo series is simple enough; the subject is shown photographed against a plain, black background while wearing their mask, with a caption from each subject discussing why they’ve pledged to wear a mask. They’re then shot without the mask as well.
Mask With Me is Laura Wopperer’s way of letting people in Charlotte know they are not alone, their voices can be heard and their willingness to mask up is powerful.
She began by reaching out to some of the Charlotteans she considered to be leaders in the community, choosing participants that believed in her message. Some were past clients and colleagues and others were complete strangers.
Her intentions were clear: She thought people would be more willing to stand up and pledge to wear a mask if the people they know and respect were doing it too, creating a chain reaction. One person pledging has the chance to inspire others to join in and mask up.
For people that were already masking but afraid to say it, she hoped this project would reduce any negative stigma associated with wearing a face mask.
“I was very deliberate in creating a work of art that was diverse. I wanted to show that people from a variety of backgrounds, occupations, ages, races and beliefs could come together to send a unified message,” Wopperer says. “I wanted to show that this message is for and from everyone.”
In the span of a couple of weeks, the photo series showcased over two dozen subjects of different races, ages and occupations. Mask With Me features familiar faces like WCCB anchor Morgan Fogarty; Liz Hilliard, owner of Hilliard Studio Method; James Yoder, co-owner of Not Just Coffee; and Sarah Hayes Harkins of Charlotte Ballet.
Along with business owners and community leaders, Laura Wopperer invited children like Ella Canty to join in. Canty is an 8th grader at Piedmont IB Middle School and a leader to her peers. The inclusion of everyday people brings a level of authenticity that is hard to find in organization-funded ad campaigns that tend to exclusively partner with local celebrities.
Despite some people’s opposition to wearing masks, Wopperer says she can count the number of times her project received negative feedback on one hand. Instead, the community has shown an outpouring of support. Admirers of the project give thanks though the Mask With Me Instagram page and others reach out to share their personal experiences with COVID-19.
Without any knowledge of her or her work, people continue to express their interest in getting involved for the same reason Laura Wopperer started the project.
“I want to take the debate out of masking,” Wopperer shares. “For me, masking was never a debatable or political issue. If a mask potentially helps protect my family or yours, why wouldn’t I do it? And why do others not see it the same way?”
That line of thinking is what triggered Laura Wopperer’s idea to create art that advocates for the cause. The series features some of Charlotte’s most recognizable and influential faces in hopes that it will motivate others to follow suit. At the time she started, the concept of masking was still up for reasonable debate, as the science around it hadn’t been solidly proven yet. Since then, the more evidence that comes to light proving the value of masking up in public, the more vitriolic the opposition becomes.
Finding Comfort in Community
The message behind Mask With Me is what Laura Wopperer describes as, “from everyone to everyone.” What began as a creative outlet for a mother on a work hiatus and spending more time with her children turned into a social movement.
“Some people may not realize the power they have to initiate change and I thought as a larger group we could easily make masking a part of our new normal as a community and nation,” says Wopperer.
Believing that one person can trigger an entire movement of progress and acceptance, Wopperer wants communities in other cities to see how Charlotteans have used their voice and influence to come together.
Mask With Me is a platform for people to share that they believe in masking and aren’t afraid to say it, influencers in the most literal sense of the word. She also hopes the project inspires others to use their unique skills to make a difference in the world, as she aims to do with her photography.
“My biggest goal is to get everyone, near and far, political affiliations aside, to agree that masking is a simple, effective act each person can take to help one another,” Wopperer shares.
By the time this story gets published to the site, Wopperer will have scheduled two dozen more subjects to be included in the project. As a self-taught photographer who has slowly taken on new challenges throughout her career, she has now set her sights on creating change through portraiture.
Laura Wopperer’s Photographic Come-up
Laura Wopperer began her journey as a photographer in 2009 right after the birth of her twins. She had just left her corporate communications job to raise them full-time. A few months into her stint as a stay-at-home mom, she itched for a creative outlet. Instead of returning to her previous career, she purchased a professional camera on a whim and taught herself photography, something she had always had an interest in.
Her first subjects were her own children. She spent the first year or so taking photos of the twins and, in the process, learned the ins and the outs of her camera. Working with her newborn children ignited a desire to practice photography professionally.
With no formal education or training in photography, she slowly built her portfolio, teaching herself new skills along the way. Eventually, Wopperer began working in hospitals, capturing intimate photos of newborns and their families.
“The art of molding brand new babies into these complicated positions that showcased their features while they were brand new was so intriguing to me,” Wopperer shares. “Newborns are some of the hardest subjects to work with in terms of posing, safety, lighting and the technical skill required.”
After newborn portraiture, she challenged herself to capture entire families, working on location without her familiar lighting set up. She continued to switch up the subject and format of her work over the years. Later came commercial photography where, she shared, there are greater limitations when it comes to fitting each space to the specific needs of each client.
Over the past decade, Wopperer has captured around 200 clients a year, with subjects ranging from newborns to commercial photography to private photography for a NASCAR driver. She grew to love all the different aspects of photography, and generally enjoys working with people and creating art for them.
In 2020, community-based social change has a new face in Charlotte as we look to leaders and influencers to use their platforms to advocate and educate. Now more than ever, as COVID-19 cases increase yet again and more businesses are caught not enforcing safety precautions, the act of wearing a mask is larger than any single person.
People wear a mask to protect one another from a pandemic unlike anything they’d seen before. Without solidarity on that front, we fail the most vulnerable people in our community — the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Wearing masks and keeping a safe distance is our only armor in the face of the global pandemic.
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