What the Pandemic Can’t Touch

After exiting Interstate 20 and approaching downtown Odessa, Texas, a few distinct features always catch my eye: a rusty longhorn standing along Grant Avenue like a sentinel, a colossal state flag flapping in the dry air and long, flat streets blending into a distant horizon.

In my 12 years of living in and photographing Texas, I’ve felt the state’s pulse most strongly in Odessa. This sun-bleached western city, deep in the heart of the Permian Basin, sits in one of the most productive oil fields in the world — and is home to the cinematic Texas of my imagination. Cowboy hats, trucks kicking up dust and nodding pump jacks backlit by scarlet sunsets are as much a part of the state’s mythology as they are the landscape of the region. In this quintessential oil town, flashy new buildings clash with vacant ones, marking the dizzying cycles of oil booms and busts like rings on a tree.

With so many evocative visuals, it’s easy to make Odessa come alive in a photograph. What was harder to capture, as I found when I returned to Odessa to photograph a story about one high school’s reopening for “The Daily,” are the subtle ways the past year has transformed the city and its people.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic oil crash it induced was what some residents called “a double whammy.” The price of West Texas Intermediate crude briefly dipped below zero for the first time ever. Layoffs spiked, and soon the West Texas Food Bank saw record numbers of people seeking assistance. Still, an electronic sign in neighboring Midland captured the spirit of the region. Instead of displaying the price of oil or rig counts, common measures of the oil industry’s health, as it usually did, the sign flashed messages like “Texans Never Give Up!”

By the time I visited Odessa in late January, the state had endured a bruising 10 months and, at the time, had lost over 38,000 lives to Covid-19, but Odessa was fighting for a sense of normalcy. Coronavirus cases across Texas were just starting to fall and the rig count in the Permian was rising. A mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Ratliff Stadium, where Odessa’s high school football teams face off, was just days away from opening. At a small rodeo, the volume of the mostly maskless crowd rose and fell with the action until the air gave way to chatter and twangy country tunes.

This fight for normalcy also extended to Odessa High School, which was in one of the first school districts in the country to reopen their doors last fall. The decision to return to the classroom was mandated by the state but instituted by teachers and faculty member who risked exposure to Covid-19 to keep students on track and prevent those at risk from falling further behind.

As I made my way through the school, I saw a place both foreign and familiar. Fewer students were present than usual — at the time, the school was alternating in-person and remote learning days for juniors and seniors to limit the number of people on campus — but the atmosphere was still lively. At the sound of the bell, the fluorescent hallways flooded with teenagers shoulder to shoulder, giggling and gossiping behind their masks. An occasional call from a teacher to socially distance would cut through the commotion. Against the backdrop of this ordinary American high school was the extraordinary reality of the present. And amid a lingering sense of loss, the school was trying to recover some of what the pandemic had taken away — an entire generation’s coming-of-age that had been inexorably altered.

My photographs are a snapshot of the reopening experiment and a portrait of the city around it. Images of personal protective equipment, of a teacher with more students learning at home than in her classroom and of rigorous disinfecting protocols capture this moment in time, and how life has changed. What they don’t capture is the courage shown by students, teachers and faculty members in navigating through the unknown.

Odessa knows hard times. But behind the town’s facade of Texas clichés, it’s a place of grit and heart. That’s something I saw at Odessa High School, something I couldn’t quite photograph, and something I believe the pandemic can’t touch.

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