This Was the Year That Was

Students who chose to enter the 2020-2021 one-year certificate program last year—in the midst of a pandemic, lockdowns, mounting political polarization, and widespread calls for social justice—had one thing in common. Each chose to commit almost a year of their lives to exploring what lens-based imaging meant to them, as well as those who might encounter their work. But if photography is a medium that, under more normal circumstances, benefits from proximity, the picture makers featured here had little choice but to produce work in relative isolation, at a distance from their instructors and peers, and to share what they made remotely. As many in visual and media culture were debating how the pandemic should best be represented—as misinformation, photo-ops, and memes ranging from the pernicious to the ridiculous spread like the COVID-19 virus itself—the challenge this year’s graduates faced was to make work that, whatever its concerns and subject matter might be, was thoughtful and had presence in a time of unprecedented absence and loss. 

ICP’s two programs, Creative Practices and Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism, differ in terms of goals and practices, but work from this year seems to hover around related themes and ideas. Many of the projects you’ll see here focus on community and dislocation. There’s work that zooms in on or circles around the complex nature of relationships: the most intimate, the familial, those that bind demographic groups and impact culture at large. First-hand experience with the Coronavirus pandemic is fore-fronted in some works and hinted at elsewhere. Because we’ve lived so long in an atmosphere of disruption and uncertainty—with people grieving for loved ones who died, jobs that were furloughed or vanished, opportunities that evaporated, and routines that were upended—the somber tone of much of the work here reflects a year in which individuals, communal groups, institutions, industries, and governments were shaken to the core.

Given that we all wound up alone or in forced proximity to a few and mostly separated from one another for long stretches of time, it’s not surprising that the kinds of connections that bind people together became a focus of much of the work presented here. We are reminded, too, that even if the world seemed to be on hold at times, complex issues surrounding race, class, gender, immigration, surveillance, and the environment continued to simmer or boil over, fueling art-makers’ and visual journalists’ sense of urgency. And as the need and the audiences for art and visual storytelling multiplied, so did the formats and platforms imagemakers experimented with, from wall to print to video to web-based work.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this past, unprecedented school year is how the classroom situation, even if remote and radically remotely restructured, still allowed for supportive groups of people to maintain dialog and watch out for each other. Photography, as it so often does, served as a connector. It enabled people to stay engaged and in contact while socially distanced, to explore how images put facts and feelings in context, memorialize what was, and consider what it will take to move forward.

-Marvin Heiferman