A Photographer’s Dreamy, Post-Pandemic Love Letter to New York City

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Sept. 2020 NYC by Sarai Mari artist photographer book
Sept. 2020 NYCCourtesy of Sarai Mari

After taking up street photography during the summer of 2020, Japanese artist Sarai Mari discovered a new side of the city she calls home

It took six years for Sarai Mari to truly fall in love with New York. The Tokyo-born fashion photographer moved to the city in 2014, after her partner – hairstylist Tomo Jidai – was forced to spend more time there for work. Having previously lived in London, it wasn’t too radical a change: just another fast-paced, cosmopolitan city powered by change, growth and ambition. She quickly settled in, shooting celebrity portraits for Interview Magazine, as well campaigns for American Apparel, YSL and Jimmy Choo.

But then spring 2020 came along. The city, once buzzing with life, turned into a ghost town overnight. “I was scared to death,” Mari remembers. “I really thought we would die one by one, slowly, and that the end of the world was coming.” At the time, Covid was still largely a mystery – both to citizens and health officials – which created a suffocating sense of uncertainty. “No one wanted to leave the house,” she says, “we all locked ourselves inside.”

Thankfully, by summer, the mood had begun to shift. The arrival of the sun saw the city sprout slowly back to life, with many of its inhabitants freed from the obligations of school and office life. The parks filled up, local communities reunited, and – following the death of George Floyd – the streets buzzed with an emboldened, righteous energy. “It felt like a unique and new way of life,” says Mari. “No one could go far, we all stayed in the same neighbourhood ... summer 2020 was like a rebirth for the city, challenging you to do what you had never done before.”

For the first time in her career, Mari felt compelled to try street photography, hoping to document this pivotal moment in history. But approaching strangers was daunting: “Some liked me, some hated me. I needed a lot of encouragement.” After overcoming the initial fear, she slowly grew more confident, joyfully roving across boroughs to capture protests, street parties and riverside roller discos. The resulting images – which can now be seen in Purezine-published book, Sept.2020 NYC illuminate New York’s more offbeat, community-minded corners, revealing a city that is (surprisingly) warm, welcoming and open-hearted.

The project was also extremely personal for Mari, as it helped her to discover a previously hidden side of the city she calls home. “It completely changed how I felt about New York,” she says. “I needed a little push to dive into it. It feels effortless to meet new people on the street now.” Although easily written off as another aggressive work-obsessed metropolis, the pandemic gave Mari an opportunity to engage with the city on a deeper level. “I’ve had the chance to capture moments of rebirth and rebuilding ... [to capture] those who survived, and those who didn’t give up,” she writes in the book’s foreword. “This spirit and resilience is something I will forever treasure, and will forever find myself inspired by.”

Sept.2020 NYC is published by Purezine, and is out now.