What the Pandemic Can’t Touch

In Texas oil country, a photographer captures one high school’s struggle to reopen during the pandemic — and witnesses the region’s resilience.

Jeremy Frizell, 16, is helped into a chute during a rodeo in West Odessa, Texas.Credit…

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Photographs and Text by Tamir Kalifa

After exiting Interstate 20 and approaching downtown Odessa, Texas, a few distinct features always catch my eye: a rusty longhorn standing along Grant Avenue like a sentinel, a colossal state flag flapping in the dry air and long, flat streets blending into a distant horizon.

In my 12 years of living in and photographing Texas, I’ve felt the state’s pulse most strongly in Odessa. This sun-bleached western city, deep in the heart of the Permian Basin, sits in one of the most productive oil fields in the world — and is home to the cinematic Texas of my imagination. Cowboy hats, trucks kicking up dust and nodding pump jacks backlit by scarlet sunsets are as much a part of the state’s mythology as they are the landscape of the region. In this quintessential oil town, flashy new buildings clash with vacant ones, marking the dizzying cycles of oil booms and busts like rings on a tree.

With so many evocative visuals, it’s easy to make Odessa come alive in a photograph. What was harder to capture, as I found when I returned to Odessa to photograph a story about one high school’s reopening for “The Daily,” are the subtle ways the past year has transformed the city and its people. `

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