After exiting Interstate 20 and approaching downtown Odessa, Texas, a few distinct features still catch my eye: a rusty longhorn standing along Grant Avenue like a sentry, a colossal state flag fluttering in dry air and long, flat streets blending into a distant horizon. .
In my 12 years living and photographing in Texas, I have felt the pulse of the state most strongly in Odessa. This sun-bleached western city 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, dust-raising trucks, and pump jacks backlit by crimson sunsets are as much a part of the state’s mythology as it is of the region’s landscape. In this quintessential oil town, flashy new buildings collide with vacant buildings, marking dizzying cycles of oil booms and busts like rings on a tree.
With so many evocative visuals, it’s easy to bring Odessa to life in a photograph. What was harder to capture, as I saw when I returned to Odessa to photograph a story about a high school reopening for “The Daily,” were the subtle ways that last year transformed the world. city and its inhabitants.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic oil crash it caused was what some locals called “a double whammy.” The price of West Texas Intermediate crude briefly fell below zero for the first time. Layoffs skyrocketed, and soon the West Texas Food Bank saw a record number of people asking for help. Yet an electronic sign in neighboring Midland has captured the spirit of the region. Instead of displaying the price of oil or the number of rigs, common measures of the health of the oil industry, as usual, the sign posted messages such as “Texans never give up!”
By the time I visited Odessa in late January, the state had endured 10 months of bruising and, at the time, had lost over 38,000 lives due to Covid-19, but Odessa was fighting for a sense of normality. Coronavirus cases across Texas were just starting to decline and the number of platforms in the Permian was increasing. A mass vaccination site in the parking lot of Ratliff Stadium, where Odessa High School football teams compete, was days away from opening. At a small rodeo, the volume of the crowd, mostly maskless, grew and fell with the action until the air gave way to chatter and twangy country tunes.
This struggle for normality has also spread to Odessa High School, which was in one of the first school districts in the country to reopen last fall. The decision to return to class was mandated by the state, but instituted by teachers and faculty at risk of exposure to Covid-19 to keep students on track and prevent those at risk from taking late.
As I walked through the school, I saw a place both foreign and familiar. Fewer students were in attendance than usual – at the time, the school alternated between face-to-face and distance learning days for juniors and seniors to limit the number of people on campus – but the atmosphere was always lively. At the sound of the bell, the fluorescent hallways filled with teenagers side by side, laughing and chatting behind their masks. An occasional call from a social distance teacher would cut off the commotion. Within the context 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 reclaim some of what the pandemic had taken away – an entire generation that had been inexorably damaged.
My photographs are a snapshot of the reopening experience and a portrait of the city that surrounds it. Images of personal protective equipment, a teacher with more students learning at home than in her classroom, and rigorous disinfection protocols capture this moment in time and how life has changed. What they don’t understand is the courage students, teachers, and faculty have to navigate through the unknown.
Odessa is going through difficult times. But behind the facade of the city of Texan clichés, it is a place of courage and heart. This is something I saw in high school in Odessa, something that I couldn’t really photograph, and something that I think the pandemic cannot touch.