Photos frame pandemic life

One Lens: Sharing Our Common Views exhibit, ROBERT SHIPP

By Deborah Lynch

Some day in the future when all current Pennsylvanians are no longer around, their stories will live on through One Lens: Sharing Our Common Views, a project that has been organized by First Lady Frances Wolf to help Pennsylvanians see their similarities and common goals, and to build stronger bonds between neighbors and communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone in the state, nation, and world experienced 2020 as a year of great challenge, struggle, strife — yet also as one that helped many to appreciate simple pleasures, family, and friends. All of those emotions and experiences are illustrated in the One Lens exhibit.

The virtual project collected photo and audio submissions from Pennsylvanians that covered Our Lives, Our Heroes, and Our Communities from March 2020-March 2021. Nearly 900 photos were submitted from 58 of the 67 Pennsylvania counties; three audio chronicles were submitted in partnership with LAMP (Libraries of Accessible Media for Pennsylvanians) to make this project accessible to everyone. The photos and audios will be archived by the state library and the state archives to help record the pandemic experience forever. 

“It doesn’t happen often that we have a chance to provide primary information, that we are creating a primary source for historians,” Wolf said of the project. “… everyone has their own image or images that they have submitted, but en masse they are creating a historical document of evidence — a body of evidence of what Pennsylvanians did during the 2020 pandemic,” she said. “This very much parallels the images of the 1918 pandemic that the state archives has.”

The idea for the project grew out of Wolf’s personal experience. She had just had an exhibition of her paintings open in Gettysburg, but within a week, the pandemic had closed it down. She went to work sewing masks, and then reaching out to her community of close friends and family through Zoom to help get through the start of the pandemic. She realized that everyone was suffering and began looking for ways to bring comfort to the communities of Pennsylvania. Acknowledging that many people communicate through visuals (such as social media) and that most people have a phone that can take a photo, she decided to create a project based around the images of a life in lockdown. 

“We have seen scenes that run over and over — how people drew comfort to themselves,” Wolf said of the submissions. “They play out over and over again from so many photographs from all over the state. … people may recognize that someone in Erie has the same experience as someone in Montgomery County; someone in Philadelphia did exactly the same thing as someone in Allegheny County. There are connections and we can actually show the connections. I’m hoping that by doing that, even though we are all in different places, we are absolutely a part as citizens of Pennsylvania — we are still a community.”

Part of the project was to ensure that everyone was represented, so regional ambassadors were appointed to help promote it and then to analyze it. As the ambassador for Central PA, Porcha Johnson — founder and CEO of Black Girl Health and executive director of Black Girl Health Foundation, and former WGAL reporter — used her social media influencer role to galvanize the people of this region to document their lives. “This is a moment that changed our lives,” she said of the pandemic. “We remember when it happened. We remember how it affected us and the people we love. We remember how it changed how we do things.”

To partner with the One Lens photo exhibit, Wolf also set up a series of virtual conversations to take a deeper look into pandemic life that were recorded. This “Bigger Picture” series includes conversations with experts on topics including mental health, small business, tourism and the outdoors, and healing in art. 

“I was talking with people who had experience either personally or professionally in the roller coaster ride that we are all on. There was encouragement — they promised there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel — that we could do this,” Wolf said. “I don’t know if this is a Pennsylvania thing, but each in their own way were very intent on moving to that light. In the midst of everything we’ve given up — time with family, time with friends, losing a family member to Covid and the unbearable grief that follows — still they talked about that despite these hard times, we will still prevail. It was beyond encouraging.”

The virtual photo exhibit and “Bigger Picture” conversations will be accessible through the One Lens website at at least through the rest of the Wolf administration (until 2023). The gallery will include more than 1,200 photos.