Travel Photography in the Time of COVID-19

The lockdowns began in late January. The first was Wuhan in China, the epicenter of the current coronavirus pandemic. The images that came back to us of a major, modern city reduced to a ghost town of empty streets and shuttered storefronts unnerved people across the world. And then the virus spread, and the lockdowns spread with it.

When the crisis hit Italy — that majestic jewel of a country, the subject of so much gorgeous travel photography — the lockdown transformed its cities in the same way it did Wuhan. Famously, the Venice canals run clear, no longer populated by gondolas, they are now filled with the traffic of fish and dolphins.

Social media is full of similar stories. Towns and cities, the places where we live and work and make memories in, are turning from vibrant hubs of human activity into something more akin to an empty Hollywood set. These bizarre images of empty public spaces are like a dark mirror to travel photography.

Photographers have long sought out the strange moments, unfamiliar views of familiar places. But the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an entirely new form of travel photography. With self quarantine protocols, lockdowns, and shelter in place orders, photographers are pointing their cameras to the places we do not go anymore. The results are astounding.

And now our cities are beginning to look like areas of Pyongyang. We used to view cities with empty streets as signs of unforgivable authoritarianism. But there is no place for public life in a pandemic.

There is also more lighthearted fare. The wildly popular social media platform Tik Tok is giving birth to a new form of humorous photography and video — a way to laugh while you spend the days inside. These take full advantage of the times we live in. The empty streets and social distancing are occasions for comedy.

Perhaps, laughing through this is the only way to beat back the waves of anxiety that come for all of us with the daily headlines.

While the big business of fine art is taking a hit along with every other industry, the novel coronavirus is not able to quell the human need to produce art. Artists of all kinds, particularly photographers, are continuing to make observations and evoke feelings. Their subject is the world we built, living on without us.

What are we looking for in these images? Why do they captivate us? They show us the true body of the spaces we once trafficked in without a second thought. They speak to us about the loneliness we feel looking out from our living room windows. They have a grim form of peace and quiet as well. This confusing mixture of pleasure and pathos, of calm and anxiety, make for compelling art.

The photography coming out of the lockdowns also echoes a more vague fear global culture has held for some time now. That is, the fear of a coming apocalypse. Blockbuster movies and popular fiction novels have obsessed over this concept for more than a decade now. The world after us. The sources of these apocalypses run the gamut from the terrifyingly real to the fantastically unreal: extreme climate change, zombie outbreak, war, economic collapse, etc. We’ve been bracing ourselves for a long time to see the end of civilization. And while this pandemic isn’t likely to do the job, the images coming from all over the world of empty cities glowing in the twilight with not a soul around can’t help but remind us of that general fear that we have.

These images are about our anxiety of a time after humans. Especially with a climate in crisis and nuclear weapons spread across many countries, we naturally consider the possibility that the enterprise of collective human society might come to an end.

There is another, more personal element as well. The release of the iPhone in 2007 and the rise of engaging, but physically isolating, social media have gradually reduced our participation in public life. Our friend groups are shrinking, if we have friends at all. People are feeling the walls closing in. For years, we’ve been spending more and more time home alone, long before the virus trapped us in our houses. The COVID-19 pandemic, by closing off any access to public life, shows us the troubling choices we were making before the lockdowns came.

With these new insights from photography in the coronavirus pandemic, we are reawakening to something. Over the past several years, we have been turning more and more inward. At the same time, we have been worried about the coming climate crisis but doing very little about it. When we see photographs of the world at a standstill, absent human beings, these trends are given witness. We must fight the virus to get our public spaces back, and when we do return to them, we must cherish them. Public life is not guaranteed.

We will return. We will come together as people once again. And we cannot take this for granted. Photography is teaching us an important lesson. And we must listen to it.

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