BY Colin Edgington in Features | 28 APR 22
Featured in
Issue 227

What Does It Mean to Photograph the Pandemic?

Colin Edgington on how images of COVID-19 attempted to capture the invisible

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BY Colin Edgington in Features | 28 APR 22

The COVID-19 pandemic was a quiet catastrophe, insofar as it was not the type that we are used to seeing photographed. The years of destruction in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, as well as the current war in Ukraine – to name but a few of the places devastated by revolution and armed conflict in recent times – can attest to this. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic was politicized via images that travelled from the frontlines to people in lockdown across the globe: doctors covered from head to toe in protective gear; the sick, including children, hooked up to ventilators; bodies wrapped in plastic.

Go Nakamura, Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Getty Images
Go Nakamura, Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Getty Images

While teaching photography at the College of Staten Island, New York, at the beginning of 2021, I was shown a photograph by one of my students that she had taken at the burial of a COVID-19 victim. It had been shot in black and white from a distance. The student told me that it was as close as she was allowed to go. The grave was surrounded by white plastic sheeting and a few people in what looked like hazmat suits. We, the viewers, were held at bay just as the photographer had been. Who among us has not watched the suffering from a distance, until that distance diminished and the virus entered our buildings, our homes and perhaps even our own lungs? And, I wonder, have all the photographs taken during the pandemic been emblems of suffering? I think of how Felix González-Torres and David Wojnarowicz responded to the AIDS epidemic with grace and fury, respectively. I think of masks, too, and how prevalent they have become. But the masks mean something, and behind them lies a world of truth.

Karl Ohiri, US, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Autograph, London
Karl Ohiri, US, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Autograph, London

The pandemic is a catastrophe – from the Greek katastrophē, meaning an ‘overturning’ or ‘sudden turn’ – and its reverberations have been felt deeply by us all. During this time, photographers have been doing what photographers do: going out and shooting spaces and people. In this instance, the spaces are often empty, and the people are usually wearing masks. Photojournalism by Timothy Fadek, Go Nakamura, Alessio Paduano and Erin Schaff, among many others, has brought scenes of sequestered suffering right to our screens. Nakamura’s photograph of a doctor in full PPE hugging an elderly COVID-19 patient expresses the sheer loneliness of the pandemic. Fadek’s photographs of wrapped bodies on gurneys and boxed cadavers, from his series ‘Virus City’ (2020), display the onslaught of death, particularly his image showing a group of four people stacking makeshift caskets into a truck. To photograph the pandemic was to capture the invisible, and the sensation of utter isolation.

Karl Ohiri’s Equation for Humanity (2020), made in response to the pandemic, depicts five stones the artist gathered in a meadow near his residence. Inscribed into each stone is a symbol that, when put together, reads: ‘I + U = US’. As Ohiri notes in his statement about the work, it’s a ‘sociological equation for humanity’. The pictures are simple. The rocks were photographed canted against black backgrounds as if they were archaeological finds, like historical records of our time.

Brea Souders, Untitled #33 (from ‘Vistas’), 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York
Brea Souders, Untitled #33, 2020, from the 'Vista' series, 2019–ongoing. Courtesy: the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Masks are an obvious symbol for putting a brave face on things, but they cannot convey the extent of the psychological trauma that has simmered beneath the surface throughout the pandemic. However, they do speak to our assumption that everything will go ‘back to normal’ because they can eventually be removed. On the therapeutic qualities of art and images, critic David Levi Strauss writes in his 1994 essay ‘Take as Needed’ that there is an ‘assumption […] that healing involves a return to normalcy or stasis. But true healing is transformative, recognizing the cycle of illness and healing, and living and dying, as an active process.’ In her series ‘Vistas’ (2019–ongoing), Brea Souders expresses the sense of disjointedness and solitude many of us experienced during the pandemic in hand-painted works depicting aberrant shadows alone in the landscape. Culled from Google Photo Sphere, each work reveals the choppy removal (in the name of privacy) of the original picture-taker. The shadows are discontinuous and, at times, erratic – effects or visual alterations caused by Google’s algorithm. They are hugged by the soft watercolours that Souders has tenderly applied, giving full life to the land around the flattened silhouettes. The ghostly shadows are all of us, deleted from the physical spaces but still there in mind and spirit.

The disruption, monotony and dread of the pandemic have created sites of suffering deep in our minds and attacked our faculty for recollection. Photographers, in attempting to make the transient permanent through documentation, help us remember what has transpired individually, communally and globally during this prolonged catastrophe. As Susan Sontag noted in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003): ‘Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead.’ To remember those gaps of silence and to strive to convey the intangible: that is what it means to photograph the pandemic in the present tense.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘What Does it Mean to Photograph the Pandemic?’, as part of a special series titled ‘Photography Now’.

Main image: Brea Souders, Untitled #21, 2020, from the 'Vista' series, 2019–ongoing. Courtesy: the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York

Colin Edgington is an artist and writer.

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