How a New Hobby Helped Me Cope With the Pandemic

Photo of St. John Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL by James Huenink

I collect hobbies like some people gather stuff. Over the years, I have experimented with home brewing, crocheting, writing, and most recently photography. I love to learn about new things and establish creative outlets to share what I make with the world. My hobbies distract me from my daily stress by giving me a way to be productive and successful in short-term projects. 

I don’t know how I would have coped without my newest hobby, photography, during this pandemic. Back in April, I wrote about how shelter-in-place was making me a better person. I focused on the silver lining in the pandemic’s cloud. But after months of restrictions, the cloud got darker and the silver less bright. When COVID-19 cases surged again in the fall, the cloud almost blocked out the light completely. Turning to photography helped me cope. 

Getting started in photography

I slid into my new hobby almost accidentally. Before the pandemic, I began writing for a product review company that also wanted me to take photos of the products I rated. I hired some friends to take the shots, but after watching them, I thought, “I can do that.” So, I bought an old camera that came out in 2008. By today’s standards, it was miserable, outperformed even by my iPhone SE, but I loved it. I took it to races, read photography books, and subscribed to half a dozen new photography podcasts. I upgraded my starter camera in November 2019, and embarked on photo shoots through my beloved Chicago.

Then the pandemic hit. When our governor locked the state down, Chicago was deserted. Downtown streets lay empty. The monuments stood alone like celebrities looking for a mob of fans. And my wife and I were stuck inside our 700-square-foot apartment. 

Photo by James Huenink

How photography helped me cope

Photography gave me a way to look differently at COVID-19. March and April 2020 were terrifying, but photography gave me a way to examine the pandemic as an artist. I took a series of street portraits I call Masks of Chicagoland to see how expressive we can be even when we hide half our faces. Early in Chicago’s lockdown, downtown was almost completely deserted, so I took photographs of shockingly empty city streets and parks. Through photography, I could make art out of pain. We were all afraid. Through the lens, I could marvel at empty streets and feel excited about photos otherwise impossible to shoot. 

Photography took me outside. It would have been so easy to become a pajama-based lifeform, but the city called for photographs. I went out at least once a week just to practice. The subject didn’t really matter, just that I could use my camera. I covered protests and people smiling in the park. I visited the zoo to try out animal photography, capturing images of the apes and flamingos. I traveled the whole city of Chicago photographing almost 30 Lutheran churches. I was grateful to be outside with a purpose in a city filled with stories. 

Photo by James Huenink

Finding fulfillment in new projects

My new hobby also gave me a way to be successful. I am a pastor. Outside of Sundays, the most important work I do is visiting the hospitalized, the homebound, and those in nursing homes. Last March, all of those opportunities shut down. We tried virtual calls, but they were no replacement. Then my parishioners started to die without a visit, without last rights. I still feel like I have failed them. When I took photos, I could have immediate success. It’s hard to describe that moment of fulfilled purpose, the sense of completeness, so joyful when other projects creep along unfinished. I could go out, capture something, and share it with the world. Project completed. The look-what-I-made moment still buoys me even today.

I’m grateful that God gave me photography just as the pandemic began. It stimulated my mind and gave me a way to be active and successful when everything else was out of control. Now I have a new hobby with new skills to learn long into the future. What started as a way to distract myself has become something I love.

Content Survey (Inline)

We want to know what you think!