‘It was such a revelation, seeing this pandemic play out’

National Geographic Explorer Hannah Reyes Morales uses her photography to explore themes of resilience in life and tenderness in adversity.

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A swaddled child sleeps in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
This story appears in the January 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It is part of a series in which five contributors answer the question “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”

Over the past few years I’ve been working on “Living Lullabies,” my project on how caregivers create safer spaces for their children through nighttime song and story.

My reporting partner, Rupert Compston, and I went to the Turkish-Syrian border; for refugee and migrant families there, lullabies were a piece of home that they could take with them, almost as portable sanctuaries. We went to Liberia, where we spoke with young mothers who’d had their babies as teenagers, and saw how they were singing hope in their lullabies. Then we visited Mongolia, one of the coldest places in the world. To heat their homes, nomadic families would burn coal, which of course pollutes the air. We met a mother who sang lullabies with healing words when her children were sickened by the air.

Morales has been a National Geographic photographer since 2017.

Those were the places we had gone to, and we had a plan for the rest of the story. But we had to shift to address this experience that we’re all going through, the pandemic. I got to see what making safe spaces looks like in real time, with parents helping their children navigate swiftly changing environments.

In the United States I visited families whose children had hearing loss. Lullabies aren’t just about the song; it’s about feeling your mom’s face close to you, feeling her gentle rocking. One mom whose son has a cochlear implant said she sings to him every night because she doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to hear her anymore the next day.

We think of lullabies as songs just for children, but they’re also for the caregiver. In the context of the pandemic, we looked at how health-care and other essential workers were still using bedtime rituals and lullabies, but in ways that safely isolated them from their kids. One of the health-care workers told me it was very different from what she had always thought protection looked like. Before, it was about being physically present—but now to protect her children, she had to be physically separate, singing and telling stories to them only through mobile phone and video calls.

It was such a revelation to me, seeing this pandemic play out on a global scale and then seeing it on the granular scale in different bed spaces. I’m proud that we were able to continue a project that was very, very close to my heart and not let the pandemic derail it.

Read more from this series, “What was it like to be a photographer in 2020?”
Ruddy Roye: ‘Our job is to be part of this struggle in a very positive way
David Guttenfelder: ‘Everybody’s got an important story to tell
Diana Markosian: ‘We helped students heal from the abrupt way their year ended
Anand Varma: The pandemic dealt photographers setbacks—and surprises