In photography, as everywhere else, 2020 was a very strange year. Thousands of exhibitions were cancelled and disrupted, big events like the Paris Photo art fair and Les Rencontres d’Arles festival were abandoned, and scores of image-makers and institutions were forced into semi-hibernation. And while Covid was a huge story, it was tricky to represent photographically. Though initially spectacular, the empty streets and face masks soon became all too familiar, and beyond that, for most people, Covid just meant more time at home, where it’s looked like an average Sunday.
Still, in the future this strange time will (hopefully) seem remarkable, so it’s great that some brave photographers did document it – often for sheer love or need, without a commission or income. Chris Dorley-Brown took to London’s deserted streets during the first lockdown and posted his photographs of them on Instagram; among the few to capture the eerie atmosphere of the time, his shots deserve to end up in an archive.
Elsewhere, publications and institutions did commission image-makers, with the PHotoEspaña festival, for example, joining forces with Enaire Foundation to present Time at a Standstill: Photographic Report of a Confinement. Gathering work by 42 photographers for an online exhibition that will also be a book, this project was divided into four categories that sum up the Covid experience – absence (empty beaches/streets), urgency (medical teams), waiting (domestic scenes), and reverie (poetic shots).
Le Monde’s M magazine went for a more quirky approach to the ‘confinement’, commissioning 16 photographers to give their take on it. The selected photographers included big names such as Juergen Teller, Mario Sorrenti, Wolfgang Tillmans, Paolo Roversi and Jack Davison, but no women, and the supplement fell victim to a backlash when it was published in April. “How can you not hold them responsible for the invisibility of the work of women photographers?” asked feminist group La Part Des Femmes. It was an early warning shot that we were not necessarily all in it together – a theme that was set to recur.