The World Under Lockdown: Empty Spaces in the Photographs of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Airin Rezazadeh Farahmand

Before 2020, we probably needed to rely on science-fiction movies and dystopian novels to imagine a global pandemic. By now, however, we are all well aware of what a world stricken by an infectious disease looks like. In late 2019, a number of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology were reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities. Soon after, it was discovered that the cases were caused by a new virus (now familiar to all of us by the name COVID-19) that apparently has succeeded in crossing the species barriers. The anxieties over the rapid spread of this new virus was well reflected in the title of CNN’s report, published on 7 January 2020: “A mysterious virus is making China (and the rest of Asia) nervous. It’s not SARS, so what is it?”. This new virus was not nerve-wracking only for Asia. Proven to be highly contagious, it quickly turned into a global concern.  In the space of a few months, the virus caused a global pandemic, which is still on-going as I’m writing these lines today. 

Although the outbreak evoked different responses in different countries, the common reaction was the emergence of new norms and regulations. Handshaking was considered too dangerous. Face masks and gloves became part of daily outfits. Access to public spaces was limited and large gatherings were prohibited. The outbreak not only heralded fundamental changes in the ways people used to live and interact with each other but also changed the meaning of social spaces drastically. With people being advised to stay at home, work remotely and avoid unnecessary commuting, internet communication replaced face-to-face interaction. The ramifications of living in this new world, highly reliant on virtual spaces, were reflected in a number of cultural practices including photography. Photos capturing empty public spaces as the result of the imposed lockdowns proliferated social media soon after the start of the outbreak.  The photos of these emptied out spaces became an effective way of documenting the visual impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.  Like most crises captured in modern times, the camera not only became a tool of documentation, providing factual accounts of what was going on in the world, but also shaped a visual narrative through which the pandemic was framed. 

It is important to note that emptiness should not be taken at its face value, as it is never devoid of cultural and social significance. Courtney J. Campbell,  Allegra Giovine and Jennifer Keating, for instance, in their book Empty Spaces: perspectives on emptiness in modern history, show how emptiness is not merely an indicator of the absence of the usual content of life, but rather  a sign of disruption in more abstract qualities that are deeply implicated in our economic, political and social systems (5). Similarly, by depicting cities without human subjects and deprived of their social function, the photos of empty public spaces reflect on our anxieties of living in a highly globalized world, where the likelihood of a biological disaster threatening our very existence as human species seems more real than ever. These anxieties are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have been repeatedly depicted in fiction, most notably in post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the images of empty spaces depicting the recent pandemic bear strong resemblance to the already-existing ones in popular culture. The iconic opening sequence of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 movie I am Legend starts with an aerial shot of New York City that is peculiarly vacant. The protagonist journeys through the deserted streets of the city which have clearly fallen into decay and have been taken over by nature. Similarly, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), uses the same strategy to show how the spread of the virus has disrupted normal daily life. In shots that interestingly share a great deal of similarity to the photos depicting the recent pandemic, we see empty gyms, conference rooms, churches and stations indicating the interruption of the normal flow of everyday life.

In his analysis of the American zombie series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–) and the British production Survivors (BBC, 2008–10), Martin Walter explains that emptiness in these types of movies is used as a way of commenting on the structures of our contemporary capitalist society.  According to Walter, the familiarity of these spaces raises critical questions about the efficiency of the previous order which has clearly failed. As he puts it, “the repeated motif of journeying through empty landscapes conveys ideological viewpoints on capitalist spaces. These spaces increasingly address both a ‘perturbed familiarity’ and discourses of global (in)security” (134). Therefore, emptiness in these movies raises critical concerns about the reliability of the capitalist system that has left us vulnerable to threats such as a global pandemic. Similarly, Dora Apel argues, “by depicting our technologically advanced civilization in states of ruination and decay, post-apocalyptic narratives render our own society as other and encourage us to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or a road to decline” (152).

The fear of the so-called “next pandemic”, the one that will bring humanity to the end, is engraved in the popular culture of our time. The recurring theme of dystopian futures as a result of human activity in post-apocalyptic fiction, mirrors concerns over many pressing issues among which globalization, rapid technological advances, public health, safety, surveillance, (in)security and the possibility of human extinction stand out.  The photos of empty cities following the corona crisis, therefore, rely in part on the familiar iconography of the previous cultural products to form their visual narrative and evoke a sublime sense of fear in the viewer. Emptiness, in this context, is a key visual trope that addresses the same concerns and issues regarding the structures of our contemporary societies that are raised in fictional works. It gains its meaning when the depicted public spaces are compared to their pre-pandemic state when they were filled with people. In this sense, emptiness becomes a crucial aesthetic tool that dysfunctionalizes our social spaces, presenting them as eerie and uncanny. Freud used the term ‘uncanny’ (‘unheimlich’ in German, literally ‘un-homely’) to suggest a psychological origin for the eerie, peculiar feeling of fear that arises from the confrontation with something familiar that has suddenly turned into its opposite. Accordingly, the uncanny is located on the margin between real and unreal, constantly stressing the boundaries between the two. Similarly, in the photos of empty public spaces, popular destinations marked by their crowd suddenly have turned into unfamiliar venues with almost no human presence. The familiarity that lies at the heart of these barely recognizable spaces, stripped off their social function, adds to the uncanny quality of these photos. 

In his seminal work The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler uses Freud’s notion to explain the spatial characteristics of the places that can provoke this feeling of uncanniness in the visitors. As Vidler explains, what stimulates the feeling of uncanny in the space, is not related to particular spatial conformations as this feeling is not a property of the space itself. Rather, it is in its aesthetic dimension and is created when a space that pretends to offer the utmost security suddenly opens itself to the secret intrusion of terror (3). Uncanny as an aesthetic quality of space is what renders it strange due to an alien presence. It is, as Vidler puts it, “a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). If we look at the photos of the pandemic, emptiness seems to create a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Although the settings have remained the same, the absence of the usual crowd indicates the presence of an alien Other that disallows us to freely enter into these spaces. Being marked as unsafe, these public spaces, without their crowd, look almost like private properties. The emptiness in the photos, therefore, seem to ignite curiosity in the viewers to ask themselves what will happen to public spaces? What will remain of them? These questions are indeed important since they guide us to begin thinking about our conditions as human beings living in the twenty-first century. The photos, therefore, become the spatial visualization of a breakdown in our contemporary world systems by suggesting that emptiness might become the new normal. By visually referencing the already-existing apocalyptic images in popular culture, they build on our contemporary anxieties regarding the possibility of human extinction by emphasizing the human absence in urban settings. It may be too naive to believe that such a thing would be the case. However, even if we accept this prophecy as a form of cultural exaggeration, the criticism that is directed towards the capitalist system that has shaped our century is still very valid and mirrors deep concerns that are inherently embedded in the zeitgeist of our era.

Works Cited:

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT press, 1992).

Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating, eds., introduction to Empty Spaces: Perspectives on Emptiness in Modern History ( University of London Press, 2019).

Dora Apel, Beautiful terrible ruins: Detroit and the anxiety of decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Martin Walter, “Landscapes of loss: the semantics of empty spaces in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction” in Empty Spaces: Perspectives on emptiness in modern history, eds. Courtney J.Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating (London University Press, 2019), 133-51.

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