Masdison Thorn on the stage of (newly renovated) The Basement East, her home away from home during normal times. Photograph by Travis Commeau

Madison Thorn

"This, I believe, is what sets the HRH series apart from most other editorials. Instead of me being an outsider, trying to understand my subjects, I’m in the trenches with them. We’re eye to eye on what it’s been like to be labeled “High Risk” during the pandemic, what it’s like for a stranger to judge our life’s worth by saying “Sacrifice the Weak”. I’m grateful for my experiences during the pandemic, as traumatic as they have been, because I think it’s why my fellow “High Riskers” are so willing to open up and share their story with me. We’re in this together."

– Madison Thorn

Madison Thorn is a 30-year-old artist with a serious look in her eyes and a terrific way with a conversation. Her photographic essay, “High Risk Humans,” is a deft capturing of nice and normal local folks and some wheels in the music scene, all of whom suffer from this or that malady and are thus more susceptible to the coronavirus. They’re the High Risk Humans — we all are, but these people quite a bit more so— and still they have to venture out for bread and milk like everybody else, and brave engagement with maskless douchebags and whatever else may be hanging in the air.


On highriskhumans.com, a click on someone’s photo reveals the story behind the image. On the following pages is a collection of images from the series, coupled  with a story about each image from Thorn.

The genesis — like everything else related to COVID, began last spring. “Let’s see,” she begins, “everyone had pretty much the same April, right? Our jobs were gone. Before that my career in photography was going pretty well, and then everything pretty much came to a screeching halt. And then with COVID, I’m in what the CDC calls the high-risk category. I’m a type-1 diabetic, which is an autoimmune disease, so all of a sudden I found myself in this list that you don’t want to be a part of.

Madison Thorn on the stage of (newly renovated) The Basement East, her home away from home during normal times. Photograph by Travis Commeau
“Miss LaJuanda and I spoke quite a bit about her experiences with the civil rights movement over the course of her lifetime. My understanding of the movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd was that it was unlike any before it; this one was worldwide and people of all ages and ethnicities participated. I was hopeful that this might bring true change in the world but I’m young and naïve. So, with baited breath, I asked Miss LaJuanda her opinion of the marches that happened that summer, knowing that she had witnessed countless marches before this one. She looked at me with a soft fierceness and said, ‘This time feels different.’ I can still hear those words in my head and they still give me hope.”

“I couldn’t leave my house. I had a roommate who didn’t wash his hands. I was unsafe all the time. I don’t really remember much of March and April. And then John Prine died and it was honestly the lowest point I’d experienced in a long time. And then a couple of weeks after that there was that protest to reopen businesses in Tennessee and Nashville, and someone took the time out of their day to write “sacrifice the weak” on a sign. It wrecked me. I thought I was already at the lowest point possible and that just hit me.

“I stayed in bed for about two days,” Thorn continues. “I had three friends who were also in the high-risk category, and I texted them and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m trying to do here, but I want to photograph the high risk.’ I asked, ‘will you let me photograph you?’ and they said absolutely. So that’s where it started.”

St. Louis born and bred, Thorn tied up her wagon here two years ago. “I had a band back in St. Louis, but I didn’t come down here to be a musician,” she says, making her the only musician in history who came to Nashville NOT to be one. “I can sum everything up by saying I was born a photographer and raised as a musician. I’m a third generation photographer but spent my youth running around St. Louis’s music scene,” she says.

“Stuffs is open about his battle with mental health, to an extent, but I think he was more eager to be involved when I explained to him that sharing his story might aid someone who is also having a hard time. For over two hours we spoke about the difficulties of the pandemic and the strain it has had on our mental wellbeing, it was not an easy conversation whatsoever, but he did an incredible job. So I look at these portraits of my friend and I see astonishing strength and resilience. At a time where it is not even easy to exist in one’s own mind, he chose to be honest with the intention of helping others. I’m proud of him.”
‘I don’t know what I’m trying to do here, but I want to photograph the high risk.’ I asked, ‘will you let me photograph you?’
“It was a lovely day when I interviewed Mark; his daughter was outside with us playing in the yard. We chased each other around and laughed a lot, she was nothing but smiles and joy. Unfortunately, it was harrowing to watch Mark twirl his little girl around, a girl who obviously loves her Dad, as him and I spoke about what it would be like for her if he died from the Coronavirus. For him to hold his daughter in his arms and have to consider such a devastating possibility, what a disturbing time we live in. The sun was shining bright that day but I left their house feeling emotionally drained.”

“I think the youngest person on High Risk Humans is eight and the oldest is The Mangler (Phil Kaufman) who just turned 80” says Thorn. “You have a broad range of individuals, and my thought was … those who say sacrifice the weak, I wanted to make them understand what
that means.”

Not that it wasn’t a personal journal for Thorn too. “You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me, but with my Type 1 Diabetes being an autoimmune disease, I find myself on the list of potential casualties. People of all ages and backgrounds fall into this group — and largely through no fault of
their own.”

Thorn sums it up best on highriskhumans.com when she says, “Everyday battles just to exist has been the ‘High Risk’ way of life long before COVID-19 came around. These people are incredibly strong because of that — and to refer to them as ‘weak’ is simply ridiculous. We’re going to change that narrative.

When I began the series, I was incredibly angry. My original thought on how the project was going to unfold was to make it a huge; ‘Screw you!’ to anyone who was willing to say ‘Sacrifice the Weak.’ But then I interviewed Meghan and I distinctly remember that she was the first person I heard use the word ‘empathy,’ in regards to what should be leading our actions. I knew then and there, that was my goal for the project, to promote empathy and kindness. That moment changed the entire course of the series and I’m thankful for that.

“I wanted to start this project because, more so than anything else, I felt tragically alone. After weeks of capturing portraits of friends and new friends, I have come to realize that I am far from alone. Despite these terrifying times of isolation, humanity is very much intact and thriving.” 

“If you’ve never had a conversation with an eight year old, it can be a trip. I wanted to get a genuine understanding of Sean so I let him lead the bulk of our conversation. For at least 30 minutes we talked about ninjas, marine life, job occupations, and more ninjas. Then suddenly, undirected by his mother or myself, he quipped about his idea for helping nurses. ‘Woah! That’s really cool, Sean! Tell me more about that!’ In our 45-minute conversation, we spoke about his plan to better the world for maybe two minutes, and then it was back to dragons. But that was all that was needed to recognize that Sean has a heart of gold and a true passion for trying to make the world a better place.”

For more on Madison visit her via Instagram @mthornphoto and @high_risk_humans, and at highriskhumans.com