Lonely avenues

Lockdowns around the world have been shown to work but as fatigue set in, advertising photographer Keith Berr used his skills on a public health campaign in Cleveland, USA

As the world gets to grips with Covid, there will undoubtedly be a tsunami of lockdown photography projects. Advertising photographer Keith Berr was ahead of the curve, using his visual skills to create a public health awareness campaign in his hometown of Cleveland in the USA.

‘Lonely Avenues/The First Wave’ started as a personal project during the first wave of the pandemic when the US was in lockdown. As a photographer, the natural thing to do was to pick up a camera and take to the streets so I, together with my producer Linda Barberic, started to photograph the empty streets of Cleveland. 

It was a time when much of America’s society was locked down in an attempt to mitigate the virus from spreading. With no real end in sight, no indication as to when the stay at home message would be lifted or whether there would be other waves of high infection rates followed by more lockdowns, it was an unsettling time. Much of America was split in attitude towards this lockdown – fed by President Trump’s somewhat cavalier approach to managing the spread of the virus in the USA – presented a very real threat of a second wave which might cripple the USA.

At first we documented the bizarreness around us, not knowing how the virus was transmitted or who had it – family, friends, strangers – so contact with others was extremely minimal. We remained pretty much confined in our inner city studio compound, venturing out only for food, essentials and to photograph our deserted city.

Linda and I live and work in the inner city, in Cleveland’s Asia town. Every Sunday morning for eight weeks we ventured out on pre-dawn excursions, driving and walking the interstates and streets. The experience was eerie and haunting, bringing to mind scenes from an apocalypse or plague movie. 

We explored the uninhabited streets to create a body of work documenting the isolation and ‘Lonely Avenues’ of what the city was like during the time of the lockdown. Keeping the city empty lowered the viral curve and pushed Covid back, helping to keep people from becoming infected.

I used a Canon EOS 1DX and a 16-35mm wide-angle lens to create photographs that had a sense of being like something you might conjure in your mind from a dystopian novel by Huxley or Vonnegut. I chose low angles in the middle of what would normally have been busy intersections and highways to create impact. But it was a team effort to capture these once-in-a-lifetime moments: Linda and I would map out our routes to the locations we’d be photographing a week in advance. We wanted to abide by the stay-at-home orders, which meant being on the streets as short a time as possible. When I was choosing my angles, many times I’d squat down low, or even lie on the ground to gain a more unique perspective on the normally busy avenues or interstate highways. In these positions I was extremely vulnerable to other people who might have been traveling on the road in their cars, not expecting to find a person lying in the middle of a normally busy intersection. Linda was photographing and documenting the sessions, while watching my back. She often followed behind me in our vehicle, flashers going, ready with the horn to alert me to possible danger.

We posted these experiences on social media and the response was extraordinary. People wanted to see what was going on (or, rather, not going on) outside of their homes and what was happening, and we were giving them a glimpse. On many of the mornings we ventured out it was raining, cold and very depressing. It’s hard to describe a vibrant city suddenly feeling like an apocalypse had hit overnight and everyone was missing. 

We incorporated public health messages with these images: Mask Up, Empty Cities are not Necessary Again, Avoid Another Shutdown, were a few of the banner headlines used, along with subcategory headlines about social distancing etc…and used social media to share the awareness with the public. 

The Center for Health Affairs, along with Cuyahoga County, picked up the campaign and ran with our message. The campaign was also shared with the state of Ohio. The images were used to push the message out and used again multiple times, whenever the viral numbers started to escalate.

Friends started contacting us suggesting a gallery exhibition or publishing a book about our experiences. One friend in particular pushed very hard for a book and offered to purchase 300 copies, sight unseen. He wanted to gift it to his clients in Europe and Southeast Asia, for them to see what his city had done in response to the virus. We agreed to do it and this became another project to occupy time that would have normally been spent working on our commercial accounts and shoots. Those accounts of course had dried up completely. We are a commercial photography studio and would normally be working photographing people to create ad campaigns, but during the pandemic, without any income coming from actual work, we were forced to live on savings and unemployment benefits.

I started researching the streets and the buildings in the photos to see if I could find interesting histories about these locations that could be included in the book. The book has just been published and delivered and I’m currently working with a new team that would like us to expand on the book’s content and design.  

I believe that the photographs record a time in our lives when people have shown the capacity of coming together for the common good and abiding with the stay-at-home orders to aid the control of the spread of the virus. It was so important to honor this new ‘normal’; to respect others, wear masks in public, keep safe social distancing and frequently wash our hands.

These photographs were created with the intention of reminding us all of the sacrifices that people have made to help in mitigating the Covid pandemic on its first wave. We did this to regain our avenues and a semblance of normality but, sadly, the virus was still raging in early 2021. It wasn’t until the vaccination program started to gain momentum and offer a hope of a return to a former normality that light is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel.  

By the end of May 2021, Cleveland was just starting to open up again, for people that have been vaccinated at least. The country’s case numbers and infection rates are dropping but new variants could threaten this progress, placing the country back in the vaccine development stages again, or possibly another lockdown, if the current vaccines don’t offer sufficient protection against new variants. 

I’m glad we took it upon ourselves to photograph what I hope will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We created images of our city that will be part of our future’s history books but this type of event is also a learning lesson that need not be repeated. Our world must realise that science is what we should follow in dealing with worldwide pandemics and that we should not look to politically motivated autocrats that twist truths for their own benefit to stay in power. These are all lessons to be learned and in doing so we can look forward to the day when all this is behind us and we can have a semblance of normality once again…


Keith Berr is an international advertising and fine arts photographer and Linda is the producer. Keith is a graduate of Santa Barbara California’s Brooks Institute of Photography and along with Linda has developed a unique live/work compound in Cleveland’s Asia Town where he photographs advertising campaigns, produces television commercials, holds frequent events, fundraisers and educational gatherings. He helps people and organisations connect and share their strongest assets towards promoting the arts….. https://www.keithberr.com


By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 20 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Sustainbility Lead at the British Guild of Travel Writers.