When the CDC first made the recommendation that all Americans wear masks in public last month, New York was the first state to make those guidelines mandatory. Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, a photographer from Brownsville who now lives in Crown Heights, quickly saw the standard-issue surgical mask give way to a more creative idea of face-covering in her Brooklyn neighborhood. “Even though their faces are obscured, people are still presenting their identity,” says Barrayn. “They are representing their cultural, ethnic, and national background through their masks.”
Some, like one resident Barrayn captured in Crown Heights, are waving the flag for their heritage quite literally—in this case a Barbadian bandana affixed with the help of two rubber bands. “When carnival comes around in Brooklyn, people wear the flag handkerchiefs to represent where they’re from or where their family is from,” says Barrayn, referring to the annual West Indian Day parade. “You might see that in September, but I am seeing that now.”
With its rich culture of local tailoring, it only makes sense that Crown Heights would also be home to some of the most vibrant cloth mask designs. “People don’t have to go too far to get something stylish or custom-made,” says Barrayn.
In her search for eye-catching masks, the photographer hasn’t strayed too far from her local community. On a recent outing to neighboring Flatbush however, she spotted a particularly elaborate style by Brooklyn designer Chutney Warren made from faux crocodile and accented with diamanté and white floral appliqué. Further afield in Harlem, she has found that people are also supporting local designers. On her way uptown, she encountered Harlem resident Lavonne Williams in a show-stopping Gucci-inspired monogram mask designed by Mel Maxi, nephew of local fashion hero Dapper Dan. Even the simpler masks are being worn with personal flair. In Prospect Heights, Barrayn photographed a striking young woman in a bedazzled sky blue hijab to match her surgical mask.
Though masks have become a signifier of social distancing, a stark reminder of life amid the pandemic, Barrayn sees the stylish face coverings as a vehicle for self-expression, or even conversation starters. “In a way you’re still letting people know that you are open to communication,” she says. “What you see in these masks are expressions of existence, and that is powerful.”