Since March, photographs have played a major role in illustrating the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: life in quarantine. Particularly in public places, emptiness inspired documentation, and physical distancing–or a rebellious lack thereof–became regular topics for online publication and social media. Simultaneously, technology allowed online meetings as a richly occupied substitute for physical space, with photographs of tiled Zoom windows as the common ground, replacing streets and squares with variably-sized screens.

Amid lockdown, Instagram and Facebook have accelerated their virtual street corner role. For some, travel photos have become family photos or views out the window. For others, self-promotion has moved from professional accomplishments to bread making. But as we move to the second phase of emergence from quarantine–life in emergence–I believe the photographic challenges really begin.

The challenges parallel my interest in local variations–the blends of culture and character that occur in physical places, even in ordinary times. When we venture out again, we will be far more aware of the compromises to our internal solitude, and how they appear. We will see the juxtaposition of the economy and public health in ways that deserve documentation as balances are struck differently around the world.

I suggest that depending on location and circumstance, and applicable regulations or guidelines governing permitted activities, some photographs will be identical, and some will vary. Local culture, character, and context will expose variations on global themes.

Here are five suggestions for photographic inquiry during the month of May and June, illustrating life in emergence:

  • How are transitional messages (such as the move from “Stay Home, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus” in England) expressed both in signage and behavior?
  • What do “COVID-safe” businesses look like (including makeshift use of tables, chairs, and other fixtures to enforce physical distancing)?
  • How is overcrowding now offset, if at all, for public transport (such as enforced cueing, blocked-off seats, and rear-door entry)?
  • Who is wearing masks? Who is not? What are their form and color? Are they better suited for medical use rather than casual trips? Does their distribution vary by age, sex, or ethnicity or mode of transport?
  • In cities, how does the “mode split” on streets look different from day to day or week to week? Are there more bicycles and pedestrians? Are individuals obeying distancing guidelines?

Photographing life in emergence will reaffirm that no two cities are identical, because circumstances do not present identically from place to place. Differences and juxtapositions revealed by this imagery could comprise a treasure chest of evidence. Each of our photos could become de facto catalysts for understanding our interpretations of our cities, and how our urban futures will unfold.

8 Replies to “Photographing Urban Life in Emergence, and Why”

  1. It will be an interesting study indeed. Definitely for those focused on landscape theres an opportunity to see some of the more popular sites void of many cars or people. Why people congregate in locations is fascinating to me. It might be for several reasons. Often people are just looking for a pleasant spot where they can relax and meet. Those places in the future might be tightly restricted, removing opportunity to interact. I worry that this will lead to a less sense of place and community.

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