Pandemic Photography: From the Universal Experience to Porchtraits

Staying Home Together exhibition shows us to ourselves

Cary Benbow
4 min readAug 6, 2020
Shoppers waiting outside an Indianapolis Costco location in May, 2020

It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to look at an endless stream of images on Instagram and wonder why so many people depict the same subjects when capturing their pandemic experience. Elevated navel gazing, images of people looking out their windows, or posing on their front porch in a toilet paper festooned folly. What braggarts! Ah, the pandemic brings rise to the photographic portrait allegory of the inhabitants! ‘Quarantine life’ depicted in full tableaux — complete with Pinterest-inspired placards with slogans like “Hello”, “Welcome”, “Home”, “Live! Laugh! Love!”, or “Laundry”… all displayed in faux-weathered lettering to reinforce the time-tested ideas and ideals behind the words. Just add mockery of alcoholism, depression, isolation, and food insecurity. My cynicism has taken roost.

After five months of stressing over the ups and downs of the pandemic, worry over massive unemployment and the economy, and the social impact of the Black Lives Matter movement… in retrospect, with social injustices raging around us, how does one justify those ‘Porchtraits’ in hindsight? Throw in the masked selfies, and ignorant maltreatment of race and culture, with displays of privilege and social posturing… not as sincere allies to the ideals of the people most affected by the pandemic, but rather, as a charade of performative solidarity that will end when they feel safe once again. Cynicism is rampant.

However, I am lucky enough to include my voice in the discussion. I am lucky enough to be asked to write about photography in publications, write essays for books and exhibitions, and asked to participate in workshops and forums where people like myself can contribute to the broader discussion about photography, the visual and written arts, and culture in historic and contemporary contexts. I recognize this privilege, and I wish to use it for good whenever possible.

The published piece below accompanies the group exhibition for F-Stop Magazine issue #102: Staying Home Together, as well as the exhibition and publication by dotART to be officially presented in October, 2020 during Trieste Photo Days 2020 Festival, in north-eastern Italy.

I invite all to view the exhibition and witness how much we all have in common. And to paraphrase Edward Steichen, to see how photography is a powerful force in explaining man to man.

In this historic time, F-Stop Magazine and dotART decided to co-publish an exhibition of photography based on the theme, Staying Home Together. Our aim is to explore the current shared global experience from photographers portraying their experience: to highlight images from new routines in our lives, environments, and everyday life. The constantly evolving context of ‘everyday life’ is a term-in-flux in July of 2020, yet after recently viewing images from the 1918 influenza pandemic I was struck by how many similarities are echoed over 100 years ago. It is this similar experience that the most successful photographs are ingrained with, and those photographs are the ones which draw me in. It is that journey into a photograph that keeps me looking at photography. The historical documentation and the shared experience, that’s what makes photography such a powerful storytelling medium.

So much of what has happened to all of us in 2020 is shared experience. How can we not have similar thoughts, feelings, fears, about what is taking place or lies ahead? So many things that are similar across cities, states, countries and continents disclose the universal experience the world is sharing at this point in time. Suffering is universal. Joy is universal. Boredom is universal, hope…anxiety…curiosity…reaction to injustice…as well as expressions of support for fairness, justness, wokeness and equality. The exploration and spirit of community and images which express values and ideals of many shared cultures, religions, and humans the world over are shown. Millions of people are staying at home for the health and safety of ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.

The photos here express a breadth of artistic responses to the pandemic. The psychological effect of the pandemic is evident in the captured scenes of people in isolation, even if they are together as a family or a group. Much of the photographic work deals with a theme of identity in liminal spaces. How will we now define normality? What will come after the time we currently inhabit? What does life feel like now? What will it be like tomorrow? When trauma like this strikes a society, especially a global society, it does not just strike a group of individuals who happen to live in the same place. In exposes how connected we are, and want to be. It is compassion and simply looking out for each other that will support all of us, the arts, and our health, in the days to come.

Exhibitions like this have the power to give prominence to the talents of photographers who take the basic premise of where we find ourselves and offer a deeper understanding of a global, human narrative; not solely due to the nature of documenting the evidence of their lives, but because of their individual experience. There are many different ways to show how the condition of now has impacted each person individually, personally and creatively; and I applaud those here who dare to strike out and find new ground.



Cary Benbow

Photographer, Writer :: staff writer for F-Stop Magazine, Publisher of Wobneb Magazine. (He/him)