"Pete had just got his test results: positive for COVID-19. At the clinic, he was given just one mask. He was so scared of infecting me and his parents, that he insisted on wearing it to talk, even though we were separated by a window."
— Kasia Strek
After hearing the news of President Trump's ban on travel from Europe to the United States on March 11, photographer Pete Kiehart bought a ticket home to America. He and girlfriend Kasia Strek are typically based in Paris, but she was already stateside working on a documentary project. They decided to meet at his parents' home in North Carolina.
Kiehart was exhausted from the transatlantic flight and took his temperature on his way home from the airport. It was higher than normal, so he called a local clinic. Two days later, he tested positive for COVID-19.
"I was running this fever but I didn't feel particularly feverish," Kiehart said. "Were it not for this crazy time we're in, I probably wouldn't have taken off work."
Kiehart had mild symptoms of COVID-19 and did not experience the severe respiratory issues that can result in hospitalization. Still, that did little to quell the family's worst fears.
"Right after Pete got the test results, I learned that a friend of a friend had died the day before because of the coronavirus. He was Pete's age," Strek said. "It was very, very scary for me, especially knowing there was absolutely nothing we could do [for him]."
For the next three weeks, Kiehart self-isolated in his childhood bedroom, away from Strek and his parents, who are both older than 65.
To help fight the isolation, he started using his camera to document new daily activities — like taking his temperature and washing dishes in a bleach solution. Photographing was a way to keep himself entertained and part of his instinct as a journalist.
After seeing Kiehart's images, Strek began photographing too. She wanted to preserve the memory of this difficult time together. They would talk to each other through a window since it was the closest they could be physically together while still maintaining a safe barrier.
"I've been trying to express what I didn't know how to say, or I was scared to say, through the images," she said.
"Pete was quarantined behind this door, for we did not know how long. He couldn't leave and I couldn't enter — we could only bring him food and drinks a few times a day, putting them on a tray just inside. When I arrived, before his test results had come back, we met briefly in this doorway. Because of this, I also had to self-isolate for two weeks."
"Right after Pete got the test results, I learned that a friend of a friend had died the day before because of the coronavirus. He was Pete's age."
"In my room, desperate for sunlight, I tracked a patch as it moved across the edge of my bed."
"Every morning, I woke up, rolled over, and slid a thermometer into my mouth, like some Mad Men character lighting his first cigarette of the day. Thankfully, my fever and symptoms were mild."
"I thought that having my girlfriend close by would make things easier — the time would pass faster and we could look forward to being reunited."
While Kiehart was sick, Strek was reading stories from around the world on how people were recovering and coping with the coronavirus. She said it had a healing effect for her.
"I had this tiny, naive idea that someone else could also relate to [our experience]," she said.
Kiehart tracked his fever every day and waited two weeks after his last symptoms to fully reunite with Strek and his parents, per the World Health Organization's guidance. They are both feeling better now that they are physically back together. Photographing their experiences helped Strek and Kiehart feel like their regular selves during this uncertain time.
"Things are getting a bit back to normal," Kiehart said.
"The house where we are staying is surrounded by a forest. Every day I was looking forward to taking a walk. In the woods, between trees, fallen branches, autumn leaves, squirrels, birds, deer and silent shimmering of a stream. I was finding my refuge from the worries of sickness and quarantine, a moment of respiration in which I could be myself and forget that the world had changed."
"Every time I came to the window to talk, my heart was beating fast. It was so difficult, to see Pete's solitude, his fear and his pain and being unable to hug him, to comfort him with anything other than words, which were not coming easily."
"Children from the neighborhood made me a card and sent me breadsticks. At right, a bucket filled with bleach solution served to disinfect my dishes after meals."
"Day 11: A chart provided by the Orange County Health Department for monitoring symptoms and temperature."
"Like most people, I tried to pass the time by watching movies and TV shows - some new shows, but more often finding comfort by reliving old favorites. Even given my familiarity with the content, I found myself reacting with a mix of shock and longing at instances of touch such as a simple handshake or, indeed, at more intimate moments."
"Kasia sat on the floor at the end of the hallway during a rare visit to the edge of my quarantine area. At right, the table where my family would leave my meals."
"Kasia and I worked together to create this dual self-portrait — she aimed her camera at me while I used a smartphone app to trigger it."
"Roads surrounding the forest served as boundaries. I would walk every day to the end of the forest, turn around and come back, hoping that soon we would be walking together."
"As the world slowed down, some days I would take hours just observing animals, all very different from those that I could see in my homeland. One day a butterfly got trapped under a protective net among the azalea flowers. I watched it trying to find its way back to freedom."
"About a week after Pete's symptoms disappeared we decided to slightly relax the quarantine terms. We still couldn't touch and had to keep distance, but we started going on walks together. It felt so soothing to see him outside, in the woods, taking photos and walking nearby."
Kasia Strek and Pete Kiehart are documentary photographers and are usually based in Paris. Strek is part of ITEM, a French collective of photographers and documentary storytellers.