“Who are you behind your mask?”
For the past year, Beth Kukucka, a professional photographer living in Braddock, has posed this question to about 40 Western Pennsylvania residents.
Kukucka’s pandemic-inspired project, Behind the Mask, compiles people’s answers to the question with two of their portraits — one of them wearing a mask, the other with them in the same position without wearing a mask.
Pre-pandemic, Kukucka could be found with her camera aimed at capturing the emotion of an event or wedding. Her inspiration for Behind the Mask occurred when social distancing and mask mandates came into the picture. Kukucka says she noticed something was missing — no one could tell she was smiling behind her mask, not even children she saw at the grocery store.
“I thought, ‘We’re going to miss each other through this time. We’re going to miss our expressions and miss seeing our faces behind these masks,’” Kukucka says, “and it made me ask the question more deeply — ‘who are we behind the masks?’”
Kukucka says this question isn’t just about the visible masks we have become accustomed to because of the pandemic — she wants to know what’s behind people’s invisible masks too.
“We all wear masks, whether it’s a physical mask or not,” Kukucka says, “and this might be an opportunity to take the mask off and maybe share a little bit more about our lives together.”
Last April, Kukucka decided to drive around and ask strangers in parks if she could take photos of them with and without their masks on. Kukucka, who says she thinks of everybody as her family, says she approached the project from a place of curiosity.
“I’ve always been somebody who asked questions like, ‘What’s been the favorite part of your day?’” Kukucka says. “So that’s my incentive. I’m just somebody who asks questions and wants to know more about people beyond what they present.”
At first, Kukucka says people seemed hesitant to participate in Behind the Mask, but now she says people are much more interested in opening up — something she attributes to the project’s media exposure and people’s exhaustion from the length of the pandemic.
“We’re tired of not seeing smiles and facial reactions that we took for granted until we had to get good at reading eyes,” Kukucka says. “…I think we’re just tired of being behind the mask so we’re pretty much willing to answer anything at this point, to be seen a little more.”
Kukucka has gone from approaching people in parks to receiving inquiries from people interested in participating in the project, and Behind the Mask has evolved into portraits that go beyond just mask on and mask off. Many people who reach out to her — one of whom was an EMT nurse — have stories that give Kukucka more creative liberty with the two photos.
But despite the different portrayal of each participant’s story, Kukucka says she has found a connection between her subjects.
“The theme of this, and what I’ve learned from it, is that we’re not that different behind our mask,” Kukucka says, “and right now what seems to be coming to the surface is that we need each other — we miss each other and we need each other.”
Currently, Kukucka edits the photos and quotes she gathers into a video to make it appear as if the subject is standing still with only their mask disappearing. She updates the video regularly, but her end goal is to create a book after she takes Behind the Mask cross country, something she plans to do by the end of the summer.
“I’m going to take at least a couple weeks, take my time to stop here and there, turn left when I feel like turning left,” Kukucka says, “and just end up in Fred’s Mechanic shop in Kentucky and see who Fred is behind his mask.”
But who is Kukucka behind her mask? She paused for a moment before answering.
“I’m a spark of the great divine, as we all are, and I’m just really glad to be along for the ride,” she says.
It’s a ride that Kukucka says she’s glad she has a camera for.
“I don’t know what I would do with everything I see if I didn’t have some way of preserving it,” Kukucka says.
Kukucka says she is always looking for new people to photograph, especially those who have a diverse story to share. Those interested can contact her via her website, Instagram, or Facebook.