A young woman affixes a graduation cap to her friend’s head. Two hands, one gloved and one adorned with henna, gently clutch a snowball. A pair of students play chess on the floor of a Josselyn hallway. These are just some of the moments captured and displayed in “Connection in the Time of COVID,” a new exhibit organized by Vassar’s student photography club, PHOCUS, alongside the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The showcase, which features photography from 17 Vassar students and recent graduates, premiered in the Jade Parlor on Sept. 30.
“We wanted to reflect on and select a theme that was in conversation with the history of [the Jade Parlor],” said Cassie Jain ’20 in an email correspondence. Jain, who co-curated the show and served as a co-chair for two years on PHOCUS, explained: “[W]e sent out a call for submissions asking students and alums to reflect on their identities—visible and hidden, on and off campus—and send in work relating to that.”
The group received a significant response: Around 27 photographers submitted their work, sending in over 130 different images. “It became clear that people were inextricably thinking about identity in relation to life during the pandemic. We wanted to curate an exhibition that felt timely, but also didn’t fixate on the canonical images of the pandemic that we’re overwhelmed with every day,” Jain expressed.
While Jain has curated student exhibitions in the past, this was her first time doing it professionally. “I was working remotely most of the time back home in New Jersey, so [PHOCUS Advisor Monica Church] and I put most of the exhibition together during weekly Zoom meetings. We also wanted to include students in the curating process, so we invited members of [the] PHOCUS exec board to help us select the final images and provide input on the layout,” Jain commented. “The final product of the exhibit was the result of a deeply collaborative process, and we could not have completed it without the support of [President Bradley] and Bart Thurber, the director of the Loeb, the Loeb curatorial and preparator teams at the Loeb, and the students of PHOCUS. It was such a rewarding experience to see all of our remote efforts come to a tangible fruition with [an] in-person show.”
The photographs themselves are diverse, ranging from busy to solitary, black and white to vibrant, masked to maskless. PHOCUS darkroom manager Massimo Tarridas ’22’s [Disclaimer: Tarridas is a Columnist for The Miscellany News] photo features his family in a tiled kitchen, sitting at a table and looking pensive. “I actually took it during a happy time, and my intention was to capture a happy moment, but it does look a little bit dejected, like everyone looks a little sad in the image … [T]heir faces sort of betray the gravity of the situation,” said Tarridas.
Some photos directly confront the coronavirus pandemic. Igor Martiniouk ’24’s piece, “Son of Covid Era Man,” features himself wearing a mask over his entire face in Union Square. Martiniouk even came to the exhibit dressed in the same clothes and mask he wore in the photo, adding a performance art-esque aspect to the showcase. “The meaning behind the photo is that with Covid, we socially distanced so far that we hardly knew each other even in an in-person environment,” Martiniouk said, crediting Emma Zhuang ’24 with this interpretation. The picture also pays homage to Rene Magritte’s “Son of Man,” the iconic self-portrait of a man with a green apple obscuring his face.
Besides paying homage to surrealism, the event on Thursday also celebrated the launch of FIX, PHOCUS’ annual photography publication. All Vassar students are invited to submit their work, regardless of membership in the org. At the launch, the co-editors compared this year’s issue to a postcard, a gift and point of connection between people across distances. “[T]he entire process took place remotely over Zoom, as [Co-Editors-in-Chief] Alex Garza ’23 and Haley Whetstone ’23 were remote students on opposite sides of the country,” Jain commented when talking about putting the magazine together.
Although artists sent in the photos from across countries and computer screens, they reflect togetherness in the similar feelings photographers experienced this past year. “I hope the exhibition makes tangible so many of the intangible experiences and emotions of daily life during the pandemic,” said Jain. “Curating the show provided me with an outlet to process the grief and longing for compassion I’ve held throughout the pandemic and to expand these emotions [to] other people’s experiences. I hope people who view the show feel that same sense of community in the images.”