“2020 in Perspective”: List Gallery Offers Reflection, Meditation on Tumultuous Year

Parisa is taking refuge in her home. It’s 2020. She is unable to work because of COVID-19 and she cannot afford her rent. She takes a bath twice a day because she is so afraid of COVID-19. At dusk on Dec. 11, 2020 in Ratchaburi, Thailand, a team of researchers catch bats as they fly out of the Khao Chong Pran Cave. The team studied the saliva, excrement, blood, and tissue from the bats, attempting to understand the origins of COVID-19. Brianna Noble, an urban cowgirl, attends a Black Lives Matter movement on horseback on July 26th, 2020. Her strength and values in social justice were magnetic, and she ended up leading the protest. These stories, from photographs entitled “In Quarantine” by Maryam Saeedpoor, “The Virus Hunters” by Adam Dean, and “Brianna Noble: Urban Cowgirl” by Deanne Fitzmauric are not just photos; they are photojournalism, which captures a diverse set of experiences that the public would have otherwise not known of. 

 The List Gallery, started in 1991 to showcase exhibitions from contemporary artists, in the Lang Center for Performing Arts is currently displaying an exhibit entitled “2020 In Perspective,” which includes over 190 images taken during the COVID-19 pandemic by 36 photographers representing nineteen different nationalities. These images act as physical documentation of how people experienced 2020 globally. This exhibit serves as a way to process the year in which race, science, nature came to the forefront and truly tested humanity. The List Gallery’s photographs and accompanying website “2020 In Perspective” portray primary-source evidence of the year 2020 and how it impacted a diverse population. 

Swarthmore Professor Ron Tarver, List Gallery Director Andrea Packard, and Tess Wei, the assistant to the director of the List Gallery and visiting Assistant Professor of Art, selected the award-winning images from the Pictures of the Year international competition. The collection includes photographs displaying how a diverse group of individuals experienced COVID-19. For example, “Birthday” shows a woman celebrating her 98th birthday surrounded by nurses, having just survived COVID-19. Other images examine racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the ongoing climate crisis, and everyday people living through a global pandemic. The exhibit is available to Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff members from Sept. 9 to Oct. 19, 2021. 

Judging the Picture of the Year contest — as Professor Tarver did in the 90s and again in 2020 — gives viewers an outlet to discover what photographers focus on, and to create connections based on themes. When asked how the documentary images shaped his understanding of 2020, Professor Tarver discussed how photographers focused on water.

“Water seems to be on everybody’s mind in all different kinds of ways, you know, pollution or the lack thereof, the challenge of just getting water,” Tarver said. 

In particular, “New Danger to Underwater Life ‘COVID-19 Wastes’” by Şebnem Coşkun from the List Gallery raises not only the impending dangers related to water but also COVID-19. The photo depicts a scuba diver in a highly polluted part of the Mediterranean Sea collecting trash, and holding a face mask in hand.

“New Danger to Underwater Life ‘COVID-19 Wastes’” by Şebnem Coşkun

One of the main roles of “2020 In Perspective” is to act as a place of reflection and processing for viewers. It encapsulates themes from the entire year, and because of this, acts as an outlet to process the year 2020 as a whole. An image captures a split second that may have otherwise been unnoticed or forgotten in time, but with photography it is possible to reflect on that moment a year after it occurred. 

Wei said, “[The exhibit] allows us to look in retrospect and try to take in or have a moment and contemplate everything that we either weren’t aware of or part of.” 

“2020 In Perspective” elevates the importance of photojournalism. The photographs in this collection, which deal with difficult situations with compassion and care, came mostly from news publications and articles. Without photojournalists “acting as a canary in the coal mine” as Tarver described them doing – documenting disastrous events alongside first responders – this connection and empathy may have otherwise not been fostered.

Because of the List Gallery’s position within the college, it is not concerned with selling its artwork, but rather working with students and serving as an educational tool for the community as a whole. As Tess notes, the List Gallery has “a certain emphasis on looking, feeling, and learning from work in this space as opposed to other criteria.” 

Another role of the exhibit is to discover what the photographers valued. One of the goals of the exhibit is to shed light on the perseverance of humanity throughout the year’s struggles. 

There are a few photographs that made particular impacts on Tarver and Packard. For Packard, Eid in Syria by Anas Alkharboutli stood out for its display of persevering humanity and connection through COVID-19 and military destruction. The image displays residents of a destroyed neighborhood (their neighborhood had been destroyed by military operations in Aleppo province) breaking fast together. Packard noted that if this piece had been portrayed as a painting it would have been altered to show more lighting in a particular place to create nuance. 

Eid in Syria by Anas Alkharboutli

But, Packard noted, “This isn’t about nuance, this isn’t about perfection, and some ideal composition or beauty or color theory. This is reality. So that’s what this show is letting us explore: the truth behind these pictures, and the experience and the bravery of the photographers that lets us go places we couldn’t otherwise.” 

“Fighting Locust Invasion in East Africa” by Luis Tato specifically touched Tarver. This image displays Henry Lenayasa, a Samburu man and chief of the Archers Post settlement, trying to scare off a swarm of locusts next to Archers Post, Samburu County, Kenya on April 24, 2020. This image conveys a human’s fight against nature. Henry Lenayasa is “fighting a losing battle,” according to Tarver. Lenayasa is in the center of the photograph, looking straight ahead, bent over. His raised right hand resembles how Jesus’s right hand is often illustrated in portraits.

“Fighting Locust Invasion in East Africa” by Luis Tato

“2020 In Perspective” was extended to McCabe Library because there was an abundance of notable photographs that Tarver, Packard, and Wei wanted to display. McCabe offers a more academic setting for the photographs, as well as a more accessible setting for students. At the front of the library,  one of the displayed collections includes “And In Darkness You Find Colors” by Elisabetta Zavoli which includes twenty images, most of them taken at night of her two sons outside. Tarver, Packard, and Wei also selected these photographs from the POY competition. 2020 was the first time photographers were able to digitally alter their photographs in the competition, and Zavoli’s photos are unique in that they were manipulated. These imaginative photos display a creative, magical innocence, and they were all made with simple materials at home. While it is important to document historical events, Packard argues that these images are also important to view. 

She said, “Imagination is also real. We live in our heads, why can’t that also be captured?” 

In Professor Tarver’s words, the creation of these photographs “was just true ingenuity and the voice of wonder, in the midst of this big crisis that the whole world was in, and the pictures were just magical images, but they spoke to the depth of creativity that I think photographers have and just need to get released.” 

“But I think for journalists, they have a different perspective on the world. And so I think they focus on issues that are really difficult. But how do you pull from that humanitarian side, an aspect of the service, the global aspect of the situation, without making the whole thing look like the world is on fire?” 

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