TRENDS Diary: Filmmaker Captures Pain, Uncertainty and Determination of Louisville Restaurant Workers

A restaurant manager in downtown Louisville, photographed in the early days of the pandemic by documentary filmmaker Chris Wheeler.

TRENDS Diary, a project of the Community Foundation of Boulder County, is a place for Boulder County residents of all ages to share personal experiences that relate to a pressing community need. The focus, for now, is on our shared need to connect and solve problems, despite the increased isolation we’re all experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Dear TRENDS Diary,

I am a documentary filmmaker who planned to retire in February. My retirement lasted less than a month.

Many of my films recounted historical events, such as the Civil War and Indian Wars. As the gravity of the coronavirus sunk in, I felt the need to document the biggest historical event in our lifetime. I had recently sold my video camera, but in late March I grabbed my remaining still camera and walked to downtown Louisville to photograph our “ghost town.” A restaurant manager walked out to ask what I was doing. I asked if I could take his photo, and he complied.

The look in his eyes really struck me: a compelling combination of fear and determination. I began shooting other restaurant workers as well. They reminded me of the photos taken during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange and other WPA photographers. Though nearly 100 years separated the two events, the people shared the same expression of pain, uncertainty, and determination.

Beyond wanting to document history, something else was also driving me. I wanted to help. I didn’t have the skills to work on the frontline, but I could tell the stories of the small businesses in my town struggling on the front lines of our economy.

At first, my photos and articles ran on the Downtown Louisville Business Association’s Facebook page. That led to a 30-minute 9News documentary, “Coronavirus Winter: A Small Town Portrait in Black and White,” which was comprised primarily of still photographs – an anomaly for television. It aired in May and June.

Instead of dwelling on the suffering, I chose to focus on the determination of small business owners to survive. In the end, the worst of times have also brought out the best in us.

– Chris Wheeler