I have been looking lately at the photos taken in mid-March of the world emptying out. Many of these images were taken from above or at wide angles, revealing vast swaths of space where people used to be. Major tourist sites were suddenly vacant: Times Square stopped bustling; only pigeons frequented the plazas near the Eiffel Tower; the view from the Spanish Steps revealed an unpeopled slice of Rome. Railway platforms, airport terminals, sports stadiums, concert halls and shopping centre car parks looked suddenly and strangely blank. Even beaches, seen from above, looked scrubbed of human life.
I find these photos perversely beautiful. They are evidence of something truly terrible: the pandemic, and also of the sudden suspension of social and communal life in public that began in March. And yet perhaps I harbour the germ of a twisted visual fantasy that involves being the last person on Earth, achieving a kind of apocalyptic solitude, and experiencing the beauty of the manmade and natural world in lonely ecstasy. This, after all, is why normally so many of us go to museums at off-peak times and travel in off-season: to get away from others and to be almost alone in beautiful spaces. On a basic level, I think the visual appeal of these eerie photos comes from a place of latent alienation, a dark desire to hoard the world’s beauty for ourselves.
But these photos from mid-March, taken as the first wave of global lockdowns set in, were in fact evidence of something hopeful: large segments of the world were shutting down, fully or partially, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The constant global rush from place to place paused. In cities and towns around the world, many people stayed at home as part of a communitarian effort to protect others and themselves. These photos of emptiness could be read, then, not in terms of alienation and selfishness, but as images of an unfamiliar mode of solidarity through abstention.
This remains hard to think through because most noteworthy images of mass solidarity come in the form of bodies in the streets — as they did, in June, when millions of people took to the world’s streets in rage and mourning after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by American police officers. Photos and videos from this summer’s global Black Lives Matter protests are almost a photonegative of the empty-world pictures, and moving in their contrast. Many of us had become accustomed to our distance from each other and our circumscribed indoor worlds; then suddenly, once again, we were close together, overflowing into the streets. When I think back on 2020, I think about these two sets of images, of empty streets and full streets, and about two kinds of communitarian impulses that have animated our troubled world.
These days, though, I am returning to the images of the empty world with some feelings of dread, because we are in a strange and dark phase of the pandemic. For all the cautious hope or supposed narrative closure represented by a vaccine, the spread of the virus is accelerating rapidly in North America, while the economic consequences and human toll are mounting around the world. I am reading once again about overwhelmed hospitals and care workers. I am reading dire daily death counts. But this time there is no sense of the great global pause. In some countries second or third waves of lockdowns have begun; others remain stubbornly or helplessly open. Lockdowns and closed businesses are often ill-supported by the governments attempting to institute them. The avoidable deaths of the present moment seem to have been naturalised, or built into “our” expectations, in a way that would have been unimaginable in March.
So I am looking at images of the vacant squares and streets in a partial attempt to replay the experience of the pandemic as a sudden break with normalcy rather than a more gradual, societal collapse that has involved failures at every level. When these images of empty monuments and streets and car parks began showing up in newspapers and magazines, they were clear evidence that something momentous was happening on a global scale, something that was precipitating a pause on human life as we knew it, something that would have some impact on us all. Now they look more like artefacts of a time when many countries appeared to be coordinating similar responses, when the pandemic hadn’t become business as usual, when suspension and containment still seemed possible and perhaps imminent, if we could just stay inside.
But I know now, too, that these photos, taken together, were part of an exercise in myth-making. In fact, the world never really stopped or emptied out. In fact, we were never all in this together. In fact, the virus was not the great equaliser that put everything on pause. Many people continued to commute to their jobs, either because they were suddenly deemed “essential” or simply because they had to. Life for many people didn’t come to a full stop; it simply became more dangerous. The world only ever looked unpeopled from certain vantage points.
Sophie Haigney writes about technology and culture