Imagine if, at the height of the 1918 flu pandemic, researchers studying how society was changing captured the moment in a time capsule. What information could social scientists have today of such an effort? How can that repository inform the global response to the current pandemic? Theoretically such an artifact could be buried somewhere, but for now researchers are unlucky.
However, when the next pandemic invariably arrives, social scientists may find themselves in a better position. The nonprofit Social Science Research Council, based in Brooklyn, New York, has assembled a collection of images that aim to freeze in time the countless ways the COVID-19 crisis is transforming societies around the world. And unlike the time capsules of yesteryear, this version will be completely online. The capsule currently includes an eclectic mix of photographs, paintings and even a drawing that appears as an infectious disease expert saint Anthony Fauci.
Alondra Nelson, chair of the board, says she and her colleagues knew before spring that the pandemic was going to trigger a huge social change. Council staff presented numerous initiatives to help scientists discuss and study these changes, including grants for COVID-19 research. With the support of external sponsors, city officials also created a trial forum in which scientists assessed the pandemic from different points of view, from its effect on democracy to what society might look like in later times. The group has also started a multitudinous “program” that spans academic and creative writing that addresses all things pandemic.
But Nelson also wanted to capture the flood of images coming out of such a massive global upheaval. That led to the idea of a visual time capsule. Starting in the spring, the council began asking prominent researchers to select any image that spoke to their understanding of the crisis and then explain the choice in an interview.
Some researchers have looked at how the pandemic has illuminated racial and socioeconomic disparities in the United States, while others have been darker or even darker, including, for example, a chart asking viewers if they want to pay with Visa, Mastercard or toilet paper. So far, the time capsule consists of 21 images and corresponding interviews.
What is most striking when viewing the images is that in the midst of a pandemic that claimed more than 1.3 million lives in mid-November, few images speak directly about death or dying. More common are representations of everyday life, such as a screenshot of a virtual classroom. There are also individuals, mostly of color, who continue to work in person: a black worker cleans a chair in a U.S. Senate chamber. A black bicycle courier passes a Louis Vuitton store on board to make a delivery.
This catalog is both academic and personal. Economic sociologist Brooke Harrington of Dartmouth College selected the image of a Danish mother and son hoping to enter a school building in April. Harrington says the photo is a reminder that he stayed in Denmark, where he worked for nearly a decade, that he could be in line with his own son. Instead, her boyfriend goes to school from home and Harrington, like so many working parents, especially mothers, simultaneously juggles work and family. “If you’re asking me about my status as an individual trying to stay alive and do my job in 2020, this is what’s at the forefront of my mind,” he told Science News.
The problem of daycare and schools in the United States and elsewhere is ongoing. But other images in the collection remind viewers of current moments that may have been forgotten in a frantic news cycle. Consider the image of the Diamond Princess cruise ship moored in Yokohama, Japan. After hundreds of passengers fell ill with coronavirus in February, no one on the boat was allowed to disembark for weeks. Remember when the passenger situation was the news of the day? Not me.
Which perhaps illustrates the point of preserving these moments in perpetuity.
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