All Photos by Ruta Smith

WHAT YOU DIDN’T SEE

Photos and words by Ruta Smith

Last year started with a bang for me. For the first time ever, my family from Lithuania was here during the holidays, and January marked my 10-year anniversary living in Charleston. I had fun goals, like attend a live show once a week, travel more and find more time for a new hobby. (So optimistic!) I remember skimming through my 2020 planner with my mom and thinking, “This is going to be the year.” Well, I was right about that, but not exactly how I’d planned. What a year it was to be alive.

I never thought of myself as an essential worker until seeing everything and everyone shut down but us, a little alt-weekly newspaper, still publishing a new issue every Wednesday morning. One thing I noticed when looking through my 2020 archives: There weren’t too many unpublished outtakes from my assignments. Due to social distancing and everything else that came with COVID-19, during most of the assignments I would just show up and leave immediately after I got “the shot.” I have always known that the biggest fringe benefit of being the City Paper photographer is usually whatever happens before or after the photos are taken — the chit-chat and laughs with my subjects.

I am very hopeful for 2021, but have also learned to take it one day at a time. Here are a handful of my favorite unpublished 2020 pictures.
Love and air hugs, Ruta

Ment Nelson

I met Ment Nelson at Meyer Vogl gallery downtown, but nothing was hung for his show yet. So, we had to figure out how to make the upstairs studio at the gallery look like his space.

I knew I wanted different shots outside the gallery. Looking at his paintings, there was one of his grandmother with a crab net. I remembered that I’d taken photos at the North Bridge Park of Tia Clark, who runs Casual Crabbing with Tia. So we went there. Ment, not being super familiar with the area, got lost, but it worked out in our favor because the light was better when he arrived. It was a last-minute idea and I wasn’t really prepared for it, but the photos seemed more comfortable there compared to the ones at the gallery.

Waffle House Smackdown

Everyone loves Waffle House. It’s freshly cooked, cheap, we all go there. But, a lot of people might not know how complicated things get in the kitchen. These professional chefs, Kinfolk chef Joe Nierstadt and Cherry Bombe culinary director Kia Damon, had to learn how Waffle House employees work for the annual cooking contest. It was hilarious to watch them struggle and laugh.

D’Allesandro’s Pizza

Every time you show up at D’Allesandro’s, it’s busy. It’s not like they give me the time to do the shoot — they’re always on the go. This was for the feature about businesses and people doing things to lift up the community during COVID, before masks were required. They’re trying to social distance, with the glass and the boxes, and I just saw this moment of Ben D’Allesandro and his employee taking the order.

Dellz Retreat

Dellz Uptown was one of my favorite local restaurants. I was really sad when I found out they were closing — it was my go-to spot for a quick lunch. Those shrimp tacos! But, I was happy to see them starting something new. It wasn’t my first time working with Smarel or her mom, Maudell Grayson, but shoots with them are always so organic. It was a candid shot, with the mural in the background, they were very excited about their new project.

I remember that day. It was the Friday before everything shut down. People don’t really smile like this anymore.

Edmund’s Oast, Chef Bob Cook

Then, the next Monday and Tuesday, everything shut down. And, I have to go photograph these restaurants that are devastated. Rarely do you get a really decent shot of a chef in the kitchen. They’re always so unpredictable. The light is always bad. You can’t really tell people what to do, because everyone has their own tasks.

Wilmot Fraser

This was a day in August, it rained on and off, and I couldn’t get to his house near Hampton Park because it was flooded, so he met me at the corner. We just stood there for about 20 minutes, waiting for the water to start to go down. We talked about politics, the weather, a little bit of everything. It’s not often you get to shoot portraits on the street that was just flooded minutes earlier.

MAGA rally, North Charleston Coliseum

I had to be at the Feb. 28 Trump rally at least five hours before the event and could not leave. Parking was crazy. Everything was crazy. It was right before the Democratic primary, the energy in town was a lot.
A lot of people weren’t happy to see us (the media) there, but I had five hours to kill. So I was just walking up and down all the sections looking for photo ops and was holding my camera by my waist for this shot. I saw her approaching and snapped a few frames without aiming or focusing. And, it turned out to be a good portrait.

Chickens, Park Circle

When I heard we were writing about chickens for a story about pandemic pets, I was beyond excited. I wanted to hang out with the chickens and I was 100% sure it was going to make it on the cover.
City Paper has a very specific square-format paper, so I know when I am shooting for the cover, whatever tells the story needs to fit in a tight spot. I thought the chickens would make for a perfect cover. And when another photo of kittens made it, I was kind of disappointed.

Ma’am Saab

I thought Maryam Ghaznavi’s story was amazing. She worked in education and was opening a restaurant at Workshop. She was actually excited and put in effort for the photos — usually chefs just want to shoot in the kitchen. It was so easy and it was such a casual shot of her.

Spanglish Cocktail

Spanglish has some of the best light in town. Shooting any cocktails in there at any angle is so fun and interesting because they have all these neon lights, all the pink colors. I think I focused mostly on the bar that day. I actually don’t even remember taking this picture, it may have even been a test shot. But when I was going through my archives, I loved the light. It’s a great winter light cocktail shot.

Joseph Floyd Manor

The picture of Caroline at Joseph Floyd Manor that ended up on the cover was fine, but she had not warmed up to me yet. It was more posed. This shot was taken when I went up to her room and she told me the whole life story — more than what was written in the paper. She started pulling out magazines and talking about her daughter’s modeling career and pulling out her poems. We hung out there for almost an hour. She was happy. Out of the three people I shot, she opened up the most.

Joseph Floyd Manor

The picture of Caroline at Joseph Floyd Manor that ended up on the cover was fine, but she had not warmed up to me yet. It was more posed. This shot was taken when I went up to her room and she told me the whole life story — more than what was written in the paper. She started pulling out magazines and talking about her daughter’s modeling career and pulling out her poems. We hung out there for almost an hour. She was happy. Out of the three people I shot, she opened up the most.

Oyster Bathtub Shot

This was an Alex Lira (of Bar George) oyster photo shoot on Spring Street. In general, I thought his idea was brilliant, how he’s all about pivoting his business. The idea, how the set-up worked, it felt really special. When he pulls up with all the oysters, he’s not just doing it from the back of his truck. It’s a really cool experience.

Farmer with veg in hand

This was a shoot at Amor Healing Kitchen for the story about the good deeds people were doing in April. We didn’t really know how COVID was affecting anyone yet, but we did know the people Amor are serving, people with cancer or cancer survivors, are most at risk for COVID complications.

He had just picked these vegetables out of the garden and washed them. He didn’t really pose, he kind of just walked up to me and I got the shot. I am from a small town in Lithuania, so farms bring me back to my grandmother’s gardens and farms and picking stuff. That’s what I grew up eating.

Daps Recipe Photo

This was my favorite feature of the year: A really cool photo essay with recipes for people to cook at home. The picture from Daps that ran, I don’t think it had sauce on it. If you know Daps, this dish is full of flavor, sweet and amazing. It was the dish I was most confused about. I’m just like, “How the hell is this going to come together?” Then I saw it in the pan, and it just made sense.

Estee Gabay

Estee Gabay was one of the first musicians I ever photographed in Charleston, 10 years ago. For this shot, we thought, “Let’s do monochromatic.” So we picked blue. At King and Society streets, there’s a blue wall. But as soon as I drove down Society Street, the whole building was covered in this blue tarp. It was one of those things where you don’t plan it, but it happens. And it worked with our idea.

Comedian w/ mic

This is a shot from Best of Charleston of the Best Local Comic Jason Groce eating a butt-shaped cupcake. It was super sunny. Super hot. June 6. So, we were outside on the porch at Gene’s Haufbrau planning a shot, a local comic. And then there’s this bachelorette party, so we start talking to these people and next thing we know, I get this shot. Sometimes you know what you need, shoot it, and that’s it. But when you meet a comedian like Jason at Gene’s at 6 p.m. you really can’t predict anything.