Mercer Island Teen Helps Peers Cope With Pandemic Through Art

November 17, 2020 | by Naomi Tomky

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The first weekend of the pandemic shutdown brought tough news for Mercer Island high schooler Sophia Chew. Just as her school and personal life made the sudden transition from in-person to virtual, she learned she had not won a photo contest.

Photo courtesy Sophia Chew

Instead of pouting over Facetime to friends, she scrolled through the comments on the photos – winners and otherwise – from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography competition. There, she saw a community of teenagers encouraging fellow young photographers. She realized the value in that kind of support and knew shew wanted more – so she set about creating a similarly nurturing community, which became the Instagram account Covid-19 Photos for Teens.

Since its creation in March, the account built a community of teenage photographers to help and inspire others, offering a creative outlet for people who cope through art and photography. It resounded immediately, gathering followers and earning press from UNICEF, Seattle Magazine, and even Instagram itself via its Twitter account.

Image Credit: Instagram feed of @covid19_photos_for_teens (Warm tones theme)

Living in a world of uncertainty, with no idea when going to school and seeing her friends would again be feasible, Chew knew she needed a new kind of interaction. “Part of the reason I created it was to give myself something to focus on to stay sane,” says Chew. She started by reaching out to a few of the commenters from the photo contest that seemed to have the same encouraging mindset and “good vibes.” 

Photo courtesy Sophia Chew

Together, they created the account and set up weekly themes for teen photographers to participate in, submitting and tagging photos for the community to see, starting with “How has the virus affected people mentally?” Some are more direct and concrete, like food photography or mirrors, while others asked the community to share what they saw at protests, which Chew says inspired people to speak about what they believe in.

The account began receiving media attention in late March, which took Chew by surprise. “When I woke up to the email from the UNICEF guy,” she says, she thought, “This can’t be real!” But soon she started waking up to more surprises – like when Instagram tweeted about it to the company’s more than 30 million followers. “It was all very unexpected,” she laughs. “My high school photography teachers were stoked.” She also found support at home, from her parents. As a triplet, she says the project showed how the pandemic helped her, her brother, and her sister each develop into themselves. Now, she says, “Photography is my ‘thing.’” 

Photo courtesy Sophia Chew

Eight months into the project, she says it has gotten into a bit of a groove, with more consistency in their posting and engagement. But one thing hasn’t changed at all: “The motivation is the same,” she says, “How can we be most helpful?”

As Washington faces the third wave of the pandemic, Chew worries about not being able to shoot as much, as things shut down once again. She still faces many of the same questions she had when this all started. “Nobody knows how long this will last,” she says. So her goal remains the same: “help teens cope through photography.” She plans to continue the community throughout the pandemic, and when the pandemic dies down, she says, “Maybe the name will change.” But the idea of helping herself and her peers find sanity through pictures, she suspects will remain relevant.

Check out Covid-19 Photos for Teens on Instagram at www.instagram.com/covid19_photos_for_teens and at covid19photosforteens.weebly.com

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