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/

Learn More:

Music City, 1970s: JD Sloan’s Nashville Photographs Recently Acquired

The following is a guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division. Who is the woman in this photograph? JD Sloan’s portrait offers an aura of mystery while commenting on both the glamour and the tedium of celebrity culture. Country singer Tammy Wynette stands on a dark Opryland stage facing away […]

Art Chosen by Artists: Library of Congress National Exhibition of Prints (1943-77) – a New Research Guide

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division. As the Library of Congress marks its 220th year of serving the nation, the publication of a new guide tells two stories: how staff have for decades worked with art professionals to build the collections and how by […]

A Trio of Literary Ladies: Artist’s Descendants Donate Drawings

Fancy, Romance, and Tragedy. They sound like the plot points for a romantic tearjerker, but they are in fact the titles of three drawings recently donated to the Prints and Photographs Division by the family of the artist, George Randolph Barse, Jr. Barse was one of nearly 40 artists and sculptors charged with decorating the […]

Celebrating Harriet Tubman and the Emily Howland Album

Last week, Prints and Photographs Division staff had an opportunity to participate in Washington, D.C.’s first annual celebration of Harriet Tubman Day, which represented several very satisfying convergences. The official Harriet Tubman Day is March 10th, the date of Tubman’s death (the date of her birth is not known). The celebration was held March 8th  […]

New for You: Presidential Campaign Posters Book

The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division. The creative staff members in the Library of Congress Publishing Office produce fascinating new books each year by digging deeply into our remarkable collections, aided by Prints & Photographs Division staff. The recently issued volume, Presidential Campaign Posters from the Library […]

A Window on the Bolshevik Revolution

When James Maxwell Pringle departed for Russia in November 1917, his intent was to visit the Petrograd (St. Petersburg) branch of his employer, National City Bank. His business trip turned into an unexpected window on the Bolshevik Revolution. Arriving in Petrograd in the days just after the October Revolution, when Bolshevik forces overthrew the Russian […]