In early March, as COVID-19 cases grew, Flagstaff Unified School district shuttered, with local businesses and venues following suit. Among those tasked with navigating the new reality presented by COVID-19 were Flagstaff High School’s Joe Cornett, a photographer who has taught at the high school for eight years, and the organizers of Open Doors: Art in Action, The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany’s social justice-focused gallery series.
Though it may verge on the cliché, art in a time of crisis is powerful, a sentiment Cornett translated into a photo assignment for his high schoolers as well as his Coconino Community College photography course: go out and document the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The final product came in the form of more than 200 photos, each contending with subjects from caution-tape encircled playgrounds to an eerily vacant Sky Harbor International Airport.
“At first I wasn’t sure if I should assign it because it’s pretty dark and heavy. But then I started thinking about the idea that this is what artists do--we’re supposed to capture the world around us and what is happening. The good, bad and ugly,” Cornett said. “So I thought [the assignment] could be a good coping mechanism, because as an artist when you create work, it helps you understand a little better.”
Cornett introduced students to the art of photo documentation through Dorothea Lange and encouraged them to study the work of the famous photojournalist, specifically her photographs of the human impact of the Great Depression. Asking, how does photography react to crisis?
Mary Ross, a member of the Epiphany congregation as well as the Art in Action committee was struck by the photos that came out of the class, which also included shots by her daughter Pearl Garner, a Flag High junior and student of Cornett’s. With overwhelming support from the rest of the committee, the photos became Flagstaff in the time of COVID 19, Epiphany’s first ever virtual exhibit and the 13th since Art in Action began a year and a half ago.
Ross condensed the exhibit into a YouTube video. In it, photos fade gradually into one another, carrying the desolation of a roped off patio, the desperation of empty grocery store shelves and the sparkle of someone’s eyes, the only part of their face visible behind a medical mask.
Ross said it was fascinating to watch her daughter process her surroundings, as well as see what her peers came up with.
“Pearl saw things through her eyes as an artist, like ‘How do I grasp the playground in a way that shows the sadness of everything?’ Parking meters with bags and tape over them, one person sitting in Heritage Square, mask on. I thought it was really interesting the different perspectives that happened,” Ross said. “I was really struck by how she saw things, not only through an artist’s eye but also a child’s eye, she’s a young adult but she is very intuitive—about things like angle or what is meaningful.”
16-year-old Pearl spent the second half of her junior year doing remote learning. An assignment like Cornett’s allowed her space to go outside and explore the ways in which the world around her constantly changed. She was surprised by the number of people out and about, the way traffic seemed to have increased even as she expected it to do the opposite.
“Another thing I found really interesting was that there were so many warning signs on playgrounds and stuff.” Garner said.
Like a number of her classmates, Garner’s photos of cordoned off public spaces and cars snaking their way through drive-thru lanes, were taken on her iPhone, in many ways pointing to the poignancy of young people capturing and documenting their realities in real time.
“I definitely think that hope is one of the feelings [conjured in the photos] and also just societal change,” Garner said. “That is kind of the feeling I get, like looking at places that were so familiar and they’re completely different now, in grocery stores everyone is wearing masks. I guess there are societal changes you can notice differently and we’ve kind of captured that in photography.”
Each photo Cornett received as part of the assignment was is dialogue with another, something Ross too captured in her collated video slideshow that then became the Art in Action exhibit.
“With COVID, everyone is living in it, everyone is affected by it,” Cornett said. “Some students went into the world and navigated the crisis there. Then I had some students who responded telling me they weren’t allowed to leave the house and I said, ‘Ok, make work about that, you’re not able to go to the grocery store but you’re able to talk about you specifically, how you are experiencing this.’”
Teaching remotely, Cornett said, echoing many fellow teachers, was a challenge to say the least. With some students having access to internet and able to respond to emails daily while others without such amenities at home.
“I think it’s hard to be a really great teacher remotely because what we get really good at is connecting with our students and being there for them when they have a question or need something, it’s hard to have those connections remotely,” he said. “Another thing to add to the remote learning is everyone is learning to navigate a life with COVID and we now have to switch over and navigate how to learn and how to teach online too, there is a learning curve for both aspects of life, and both are challenging.”
Cornett was struck by the more than 200 images students collectively turned in, most notably by the portraits of people wearing masks and those of abandoned public spaces.
“I thought there was good diversity overall because everyone was experiencing it in a slightly different way but also similar. The portraits definitely stood out because we react to images of other human beings; they become self-reflective and when we look at other humans we learn about ourselves in some way,” he said. “All these portraits were masking facial features, were hiding smiles, dimples wrinkles, expressions. We are limited to only seeing people’s eyes. In a way we’re given less but it’s almost more powerful.”
The exhibit, in accordance with the Art in Action mission, is also tied to community support and social justice.
Text fades onto the screen at the end of the exhibit video: People are experiencing severe need at this time and in the near future. You can help…
Information on a handful of organizations follows, including Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, which provides food, water, PPE and more to people on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, Flagstaff Family Food Center and El Pueblo de Flagstaff’s COVID-19 Fund for Flagstaff Immigrants, reminding viewers that the effects of the pandemic, closures and access to medical care, housing and food are not equal for all.
“That is why I wanted to be a part of [Art in Action] when we formed the committee.” Ross said. “I was one of the people that formed this committee and I’ve always been an activist and always been an artist so putting those two together and making Epiphany an art gallery in a place that is usually for coffee chats or gatherings, it has made the Epiphany parish hall become a really important place not only for visual expression but talking about these issues,”
Past Art in Action exhibits have centered around uranium mining on Indigenous lands, mass incarceration and climate change—approaching race, gender and class from painting and graphic design to quilts and textiles.
And photography as a medium? It has a role in all of the above, as well as the realities taking shape amidst the pandemic.
“I think the immediacy of photography offers this information quickly. Another thing is the accessibility of photography, right now a lot of people have cellphones, even DSLR cameras. It just seems like an accessible medium to pick up and explore. COVID-19 is happening and we’re documenting it right now. We’re displaying it right now.”