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.
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.