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The Bellefonte Art Museum’s ‘C19 Photo Project’ Documents Our Shared Pandemic Experience

A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to realize that it would last much longer than we initially thought. As cases began to soar and our realities changed, it became clear that this would be a time that we would never forget. Patricia House, executive director of the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County, believed that it would be both helpful and interesting to document this moment, and the museum created the C19 Photo Project: A Time to Remember and a Time to Forget.

“We reached out not only to our membership, but in ads, newspapers, Facebook and other ways saying, ‘We’re going to do this exhibition in about a year when we think things will be at least better, and we’d like to know how you feel about it right now by sending us images of a moment in your day,’” House says. “‘Something that happened to you that you can just click the camera that reflects how this whole thing has changed your life.’”

The museum received about 200 photos, and after narrowing the submissions down, 57 pieces are to be included in the show. The photos are printed in black-and-white or sepia, and will be displayed on the museum’s walls, with some hanging from the ceiling. The photos, along with an essay of the exhibition, will also be available to purchase through a catalog created by the museum. 

The exhibit runs April 2 to May 30 at the museum, open Friday through Sunday at 133 North Allegheny Street.

Contributor Kathy Breidenbaugh explains that she didn’t necessarily mean to take photos that documented the pandemic. However, after snapping a few photos at a Black Lives Matter protest, she reflected further and found a meaningful connection in them.

“There’s a kind of symbolism with all of the pictures with the masks,” Breidenbaugh says. “When I decided to enter those, the ones from the protest, it kind of felt like through all of 2020 there were a lot of challenges. … I felt the masks, while worn because of COVID, kind of symbolized white silence to me because people were masked in the photos, too. The photo of the ‘Choose Love’ sign was a positive encouragement through all of the challenges through 2020.”

Contributor Susan Haney submitted her photo, Mask Making 101, which displays some of the first face masks she sewed. After it became apparent that masks would be around for a long time, she started to include ear loops, nose clips, chiffon filters, beautiful fabrics, and soft elastic into her designs. 

Some of the masks Susan Haney made are displayed in
her photo, Mask Making 101.

“By year’s end I had made 400,” Haney says. “Initially, I passed them around like party favors – minus the parties – then folks started ordering. The benefits to me were varied: human interaction, being part of the mask-maker ‘club,’ staying busy and productive, being part of the solution, and a renewed interest and fondness for sewing.” 

Other moments represented in this project include quarantining, working from home, and finding new ways to gather during a time of separation. House notes that the key themes of these photos are isolation, loneliness, concern, wondering when this is going to be over, and people showing ways of coping. 

House says these photos and shared experiences are keys to moving forward. 

“Art is a very powerful and inspiring medium, so we feel like the more we see how others experience this, the more empathy we develop, and then therefore, the more healing we receive ourselves, because … we realize that other people are in the same situation,” House says. “Empathy really helps clean and clear our heads and makes us feel safer, because if everybody’s in this, than maybe we get out OK. Maybe this will help us heal, knowing we’re all striving and struggling with the same thing.”

With photography so accessible, it allows almost anyone to document this moment. House notes the sharp contrast in how the 1918 flu pandemic was documented. 

“There were so few images,” she says. “People have been able to find them and put them online now, but there’s just not that much.”

House says she hopes people will save the catalog from the C19 Photo Project so future generations “will have a better appreciation of how we handled it in our day.”

House notes that as time goes on, we may forget just how challenging 2020 was. Many of us were faced with tragedy and hardships, and it will be important to remember the strength it took to overcome these difficult times. 

“It’s like pain,” House says. “You forget really how bad it hurt after it’s over. … There’s so much loss that we’re unfortunately going to remember, but we also have to find ways to heal. So that’s why it’s a ‘time to forget.’”

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This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Town&Gown.