Flickr Commons: A 13th Anniversary and the COVID-19 American Experiences

The following is a guest post by Adam Silvia, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.

Thirteen years ago, on January 16th, 2008, Flickr announced The Commons, a space where libraries and museums can share photographs with the public, and the public, in turn, can share its collective knowledge with these cultural heritage archives. The Commons began as a partnership with the Library of Congress, which to-date has contributed over 35,000 images and received, in return, a wealth of information that has significantly enhanced the descriptions for thousands of those photos.

In 2020, the guiding objective of The Commons—“to provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge”—inspired a new kind of collaboration between Flickr and the Library of Congress called: “COVID-19: American Experiences.” This project, launched last September, invites people to contribute images that reflect how the pandemic has impacted people’s lives and communities.

Photo shows person at computer, face masked by a green costume

Steadmans in Cincy, Quarantine day 231, Halloween at school [Cincinnati, Ohio], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://flic.kr/p/2k2h6rA.

We are grateful to everyone who has participated. The Flickr community has created an extraordinary nationwide collage of COVID-19 imagery: an empty expressway during lockdown in Florida, temperature screening inside the Alaska State Capitol, tents erected by the homeless in Oregon, signs encouraging doctors and nurses in Louisiana, an outdoor religious service in New Mexico, and rent moratorium advocates in Wisconsin.

Person in uniform checking the temperature of a person walking towards him

James Brooks, [Representative] Zulkosky, Capitol screening [Juneau, Alaska], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://flic.kr/p/2j4H2cs.

One photo, taken in Overland Park in eastern Kansas, shows a sign hanging in a shop window: “Face mask required to enter.” Centered in the frame, however, is a reflection of the photographer, calling our attention to those who have taken it upon themselves to document what they’ve experienced and what they’ve witnessed.

Sign mentioning masks on window, with reflection of the photographer

Benjamin White, Sign on store [Overland Park, Kansas], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://flic.kr/p/2k3XQvq

As in the past, taking photos and sharing photos is important. Following the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City, Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan, and Charles Traub organized an exhibition that welcomed photos by anyone who documented how the event had affected the city. Later published as a book, Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs (2002), the exhibition demonstrated how a collective vision can help us understand the larger meanings of our individual experiences.

This lesson is especially pertinent today as many suffer the pandemic in isolation, a reality conveyed by multiple images in “COVID-19: American Experiences.” One photo, taken with a self-timer, pictures the photographer speaking to her elderly mother through the window of a long-term care facility in northeastern Illinois. Other photos, taken in lockdown, depict everyday scenes that nonetheless have great importance.

Person sitting outside brick building looking in window

Jeanneg., Friday evening [Beecher, Illinois], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://flic.kr/p/2jHZdTK

Participants have documented, with diligence, how the pandemic has become entangled in long-building economic and political crises. The contributions to “COVID-19: American Experiences” also speak to creative responses, resiliency, and a spirit of encouragement for the future. Again, the Library of Congress extends our thanks to Flickr and everyone who has participated. We also invite you to add more photographs in the months ahead!

Signs on sidewalk--sidewalk closed and pointing which way to walk

tomstar3000 , [Outdoor restaurant tables fill a sidewalk, Eugene, Oregon], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.https://www.flickr.com/photos/tcfoto/50406758586/in/gallery-library_of_congress-72157716271339617/

Group playing instruments outdoors

Kyle T., Frankojazz, [Washington, DC], 2000. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wackyland/49894304957/in/gallery-library_of_congress-72157716271339617/

Sidewalk with signs on either side

Xavier J. Peg, Those Encouraging Signs on the Way to Work, [St. Francis Medical Center, Monroe, Louisiana], 2020. COVID-19: American Experiences photograph collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://www.flickr.com/photos/studiodxavier/49929539531/in/gallery-library_of_congress-72157716271339617/

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