#ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis

ICP & G Editions, 2021

A book celebrating the exhibition #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis, organised by the International Center of Photography, New York, October 1, 2020 – January 3, 2021.820 images by 820 photographers, from 70 countries, responding to the events of 2020. Introductory text by David Campany. Published by G Editions.

Introduction

A Necessary Experiment, by David Campany

This is the story and a celebration of a wild idea, dreamed up in deep uncertainty, at the onset of what turned out to be a tumultuous year. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in early 2020, the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City initiated a project that began online, led to the making of more than 60,000 images, and eventually developed into an exhibition with contributions from imagemakers in seventy countries around the world.

By late February 2020, it was clear the pandemic was global. Along with many other cultural institutions, we at ICP were facing the prospect of having to close our doors to the public. It was a harsh blow on many levels. Our brand-new building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had been open for just a few weeks. The new facilities of our renowned school were already buzzing, there were energetic public talks and discussions underway, and visitors were taking in our first cycle of exhibitions. ICP was playing the thoughtful and reflective role in visual culture that is its aim. But on March 13, it all came to a halt.

Although our doors closed, an open mind was needed. We pivoted fast, adapting many of our activities to online platforms, engaging with our international community. But our state-of-the-art museum could welcome no one, and what is an exhibition without an audience? Many museums and galleries were beginning to present “virtual tours” of the exhibitions they had been forced to close. As an institution dedicated to photography and visual culture, we at ICP wanted to do more. The world was in turmoil. If not now, when?

So, on March 20, just a week after closing, we launched #ICPConcerned with an invitation to our community to make, upload, and tag images on Instagram of whatever was going on in their lives, wherever they were. It was an open call, with no particular expectation, although the use of the word “concerned” derived from ICP’s founding principle to be a home for socially and politically minded image-making that can educate and change the world.

For most, the month of March 2020 brought the first experience of lockdowns and social distancing. There was deep worry as to how long the pandemic would take to bring under control, and how many lives would be lost in the process. The virus itself was invisible, so how could it be represented? What could be pictured? While a handful of photographers had some access to medical facilities, most images were being made either in uncannily emptied streets or within the confines of domestic settings. There were striking documentary and photojournalistic images, but just as many photographers were staging situations in the home, using metaphor and even dark (or, occasionally optimistic) humor to make sense of the new realities.

By April 12, ten thousand #ICPConcerned images had been uploaded to Instagram. At the same time, New York City reached 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (a number that would soon look quaintly low). #ICPConcerned was becoming truly global: that month there were images from photographers in France, Norway, the United States, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Ireland, Vietnam, China, Uruguay, South Korea, Indonesia, the UK, Bangladesh, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Panama, Greece, Romania, Peru, Italy, Nigeria, South Africa, Austria, Lithuania, Venezuela, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Turkey, Tunisia, Georgia, and Iran.

We at ICP followed the hashtag closely. Discussing the previous 24 hours in images became part of our daily ritual. With so many limitations on travel, the online experience was intensifying, becoming even more essential, and even more alienating. The internet makes connection possible but it also underscores the deep feelings of separation. Moreover, as April and early May passed, it was becoming scandalously clear that the pandemic was not affecting all communities and all countries equally. On the contrary, it was exposing the underlying inequalities that were already present. Lower income communities were being affected disproportionately. Given widespread and systemic racism, COVID-19 was taking a greater toll on Black and Brown families and bodies. We were “all in the same storm… but not in the same boat.”

The character and tone of the imagery was shifting into anguish, anger, and outrage. At the same time, the invisibility of the virus made it easier for many governments to downplay or even ignore its effects. And then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The incident was filmed by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier. Her video footage helped galvanize protests in support of Black lives and against police brutality.

Within days, the streets went from empty to full. Isolation gave way to mass gatherings. Floyd’s portrait appeared on banners and murals worldwide. In the United States alone, it is estimated that twenty million people took part in Black Lives Matter protests. Thousands of images of the demonstrations were uploaded and shared. Since most protestors were wearing PPE masks, individual identities were largely obscured. Emblazoned on many of those masks were George Floyd’s haunting words, “I can’t breathe.” They took on a double resonance—a crying out against both racial injustice and the effects of the virus.

As the images on #ICPConcerned accumulated, ICP’s galleries remained empty. Was a hashtag enough? Could ICP be doing more? How might a vast assemblage of online images be turned into a meaningful presentation? ICP’s galleries are grand and sweeping. They needed to be filled with photographs. Could we make a physical exhibition, even with no immediate prospect of reopening? Could a real-life, large scale show be installed, if only to be documented and shown online? What would a gallery exhibition mean if the public might never see it in person? It seemed an unusual notion. But that’s what we decided to do. We would make an exhibition about what was going on in the world, even if nobody could visit. We would document it, and show it on our website and through social media.

We quickly realized we would not be able to show all the uploaded images, which were nearing 35, 000 at that point. So, a group of ICP staff, thirteen in all, volunteered to make selections from #ICPConcerned in a show titled #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis. We came from many departments: Education, Public Programming, Administration, and Exhibitions. There was only a loose discussion of the criteria for choosing the images. No iron-clad checklist of what to look for. This allowed each selector to use their own judgment, just as all the different photographers had used theirs. In this way, the exhibition would have no overriding agenda, no watertight argument or position, and no single mastermind to tame the multitude of views.  If the selection embraced all perspectives, messily and without unity, then the exhibition would be an open invitation to each and every viewer to make their own interpretation.

Once an image had been selected, we reached out to the photographer. We outlined our project and asked for several things: permission to exhibit, caption information (including where and when the image was taken), permission to use the image for publicity and in book form, permission to archive a print in our collection, and a high-resolution file. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Over 800 photographers would have their work exhibited at ICP and become part of the initiative. Amateurs, professionals, students, artists, documentarists, and other visual storytellers.

Mass participation photo shows have a long and complicated history. They date back to the 1920s, when the spread of the modern mass media began to produce the illusion of democratic participation in a transnational culture open to all. Large-scale exhibitions appealed to the idea of a democracy of photography and a universal consciousness. In doing so, they often glossed over the deep inequities and uneven participation. The myth of the global village is that everyone can meet on equal terms. And, all too often in such exhibitions, photography has been held up as the innocent means of bringing people together, ignoring that fact that it is also a means of entrenching the power structures of the status quo.  Having many selectors and no agreed criteria for #ICPConcerned was risky, but it brought the possibility of a more reflective and layered take on what the “democracy of photography” really means. Looking at the pages of this book, you can decide for yourself.

Much of today’s exhibition culture is in the grip of easy consumerism. Many times, viewers’ responses to what they are looking at are often neatly packaged into experiences with simple take-aways. At ICP, we attempt to recognize and draw attention to the contradictions of the modern world and the ambiguities of all images. We believe it is not our role to simplify, nor to make things palatable. The rewards for an active, rather than passive, engagement with images that is much greater. We trust our audiences with the challenges of response.

Installation of #ICPConcerned began on June 19. A digital print station and viewing tables were set up in the gallery, making it feel more like a lab, or a project space. The images were printed along with their captions on Canon Luster paper, 17 x 22 inches. They were then hung with small steel pins as a chronological grid. The months would unfold around the largest of ICP’s galleries, so that the walls would become a timeline. To move through the space would be to retrace the events of the recent past, while criss-crossing the globe. We continued to select images right through to the beginning of November, around the time of the election in the United States. At that point, the gallery space would be—we hoped—full.

Once the prints from March, April, May, and June were on the walls, we were up to speed and living in the moment. From here on, we added new images as the weeks and months passed. Staring at the blank walls allocated to the future was unsettling. July, August, September, October, November. What would happen in the world? And what images would be made of it? It was like gazing into the unknown. But this was a live project and we were going to see it through. With the pandemic still surging, there was no prospect of reopening anytime soon. Online, we announced our “unvisitable” show. How would it be received?

Even in a year of very few norms, a brand-new exhibition in a huge but closed gallery was a little odd, even to us. Even so, it had an important symbolic status. All these photographs, made first as immaterial images, were being printed and presented in a real space.  ICP was honoring and celebrating the visions of these photographers and their experiences. In online forums, the exhibition began to gather a reputation: had ICP really installed a giant new show while most museums seemed to be inactive? Would the exhibition really come and go with no visitors at all? #ICPConcerned soon took on the status of a promise: one day, sooner or later, it would have to open to the public.

As the exhibition grew through the summer, we committed to the idea that it would remain in place until we could welcome visitors once again. Looking to the future, we commissioned a separate website for the project, and invited many of the photographers to make audio recordings about their selected image.[i] By early September, there were positive signs that New York’s cultural institutions might be able to welcome visitors. We readied ourselves: hand sanitizers around the building, timed ticketing, signs for social distancing.

On October 1, 2020, the International Center of Photography reopened. Stepping into the museum, visitors discovered the epic extent of #ICPConcerned as it snaked around corners and folded back on itself, so that the earliest images and the most recent were almost adjacent. Along walls, any number of stories, threads, motifs, and narratives could be traced. Did they add up? No. But then neither did the world. Did the exhibition speak in one voice? No. Neither did the world. But there was something salutary, cathartic, even redemptive in seeing so much of the previous year mirrored back. There it was, in its pain and difficulty, punctuated by moments of wit, hope, and possibility. For the first month we were open, our audience was stepping into an exhibition that was still evolving. Our print station remained there in the space, ready to take the chronology through to early November.

As the US election loomed, the mood grew ever more fraught and divisive. The only things that seemed clear were the tough truths. The election result, either way, was not going to bring stability overnight. An end to the pandemic was still a long way off. The world’s economies would have to be rethought, not just restarted. And, a full reckoning with racial injustice, put off for so long, was more urgent than it had ever been. While the time period covered by the exhibition was coming to an end, we knew there were few conclusions. Neither were there any easy lessons to be drawn about the show, about the status of photography, or about the world in 2020.

Very little about the making #ICPConcerned had been predictable. It was an in-the-moment exhibition that evolved through some of the most turbulent months in recent history. And, there was one final twist in store for us. On October 29, Instagram suspended the “recent” search option for hashtags. It was a precautionary measure, aimed at preventing the spread of misinformation in the run up to the election. Too little and too late, of course, but it really put a wrench in our image selection process. Our show would have to wait for that final few days of images. We put a little sign in the gallery to explain. Our exhibition stayed open until January 3, 2021. Three days later, there was a violent insurrection, and an assault on the US Capitol. With the hashtag search restored, we made our final image selections to close out the project. While those photographs never made it to the walls, we include them on these pages (and online).

Back in 1936, the anti-fascist playwright and cultural critic Bertolt Brecht laid out the profound and urgent task of representing an unpredictable world:

“With the people struggling and changing reality before our eyes, we must not […] derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master. […] Our concept of realism must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.”[ii]

Those were wise if difficult words, and worth bearing in mind as you move through the range of images that make up #ICPConcerned. No single approach dominates. Every genre and mode of photography is here. Portraits, landscapes, still life, reportage, and documentary, theatrical staging and raw witnessing, activism, and distant contemplation. These are strange times, with no guarantees as to what kind of image is effective, or for whom. There are few rules for describing a world with few rules, but it must be attempted. #ICPConcerned was a necessary experiment. While an exhibition may come and go, a book is permanent. It is there for generations to come. What will they make of #ICPConcerned, or of 2020? Time will tell.

David Campany, Chief Curator and Director of Programs, ICP

[i] www.icpconcerned.icp.org ; www.gesso.fm/icp/collections/exhibitions/icpconcerned

[ii] Bertolt Brecht, ‘Popularity and Realism’ (1936), in Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Georg Lukacs, Aesthetic and Politics, New Left Books, London, 1977, p.88.