Portraits of things: the place of face and found objects in COVID-19 pandemic remembrance

In the first week of December 2023, major newspapers in the UK were covering the testimonies of key figures in the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, an official, independent public examination of Britain’s response to the pandemic, led by a former judge. The testimonies laid bare the utter “dereliction” of those in power, as Guardian opinion columnist Andy Beckett put it. Despite the fact that the UK had close to a quarter of a million deaths, the news coverage of the inquiry proceedings does not seem to have caused a stir. As Beckett notes, even “the few dozen seats in the room for members of the public are not always full, even on days when well-known Tories are being questioned.” He goes on to say:

The pandemic, so recent, so horrendous, and for lots of people not even finished, has receded fast in many of our minds, partly because we want it to, and the inquiry has to struggle against that collective forgetting.

But what aspect of the pandemic was “so horrendous”? The British press seems to lament the behavior of politicians in office at the time was especially awful. And indeed the fact that Boris Johnson (then-Prime Minister) violated his own government’s social distancing rules at 10 Downing Street for a Christmas Party of is appalling. Likewise, Matt Hancock (then-health secretary) kissing one of his staffers does not make up the entirety of the lurid details of the drama.

On 6 December 2023, Johnson was set testify at the Inquiry. The Guardian described the scene this way:

Laminated photos of dead relatives were strung along the railings, and a van was parked outside the Paddington venue bearing a poster with the faces of 53 people and the words “the bodies did pile high”—a reference to a phrase Johnson is alleged to have used as he argued against further lockdowns in autumn 2020.

It is easy to read this description and miss the fact that family members have decided to bring photographs, mostly of just the faces, of their loved ones. One family member stated that she wanted Johnson to see “my mum’s photo.” The photograph is a way for the bereaved to make Johnson confront the consequences of his inaction.

This strategy is not one that is limited to those affected by Johnson’s policy. In fact, photographs of faces have been used by diverse groups across the world in the post-war period. Famously, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who gathered in Buenos Aires for decades starting 1977, with photographs of los desaparecidos (the disappeared) targeted by the military junta in The Dirty War. Photographs of faces can be understood as powerful for many reasons, not the least of which is what Emmanuel Levinas famously described as “the infinity of the face.” For him, the face contains the Other’s vulnerability and therefore issues an ethical demand, a sense of responsibility for the Other.

Levinas can be accused of both universalism and metaphysics here—as if the face over other parts of the body contains more evidence of the vulnerability of all humans. But I think he is simply drawing on a rather widespread idea that the face bears the most ethical significance. The face (specifically the photograph of the face), the portrait, has been a strategy in the politics of grief in commemorative efforts since at least the second half of the 20th century. This practice assumes that the face contains the humanity and dignity of individuals, which poses a quandary for those, like las madres of the desaparecidos and the UK-based Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, as they are not simply attempting to remember the demise of a single person but also trying to spotlight the structural reasons for their deaths. Johnson faced no single portrait but multiple stitched together, demonstrating the delicate balance of the visual politics of remembering the dead of mass events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

This form of memorialization could be said to fall within the framework of a liberal culture wherein the individual is the sacred bearer of rights. Shaming Johnson in this way is to draw on this history of civil religion of liberal individualism. But other memorialization practices associated with the pandemic have given us opportunities to think differently, especially about the politics of memory of mass events and the place of the face.

For instance, in April of 2021, The New York Times published an interactive project called “What Loss Looks Like.” The page resembled a wall of 54 photographs. Each features an object or a set of objects on a plain backdrop. When clicked on, a block below emerges with a larger, detailed version of the photograph, along with a quote from the reader that has sent the photograph in to the Times. As the accompanying text put it, “To acknowledge our collective losses, the Times asked readers to share photos of objects that remind them of those who died over the last year, whether from the coronavirus or other causes.” In collecting such objects, the Times was forming what it characterizes as a “virtual memorial,” responding to the fact that “during the pandemic, funerals and memorial services have been curtailed.” 

The objects were varied. For example, there was a photograph of a ring from Sarah McRae from Washington, DC, which from her grandmother, Lois Tukey Baker, who had gifted it to her so as to match one of her own. At 97 years old and living in an assisted living facility, she could not have any visitors and when she passed, Sarah could not go be with her. There was a photograph of some old ice skates submitted by Ross Bryant from Tucson, Arizona, who wrote that the first time his dad had gone ice skating at a pond near their homes, he had worn skates that looked like they were “50 years old.” Surprised by his father’s skating ability, he said he shared a picture of the skates because it “epitomized the way that…[he]approached life, frugally and humbly.” Sheila Fontanive sent in a photograph of a plastic food container, saying that her father-in-law, who had immigrated from the Dominican Republic and died from complications from COVID, loved “to share his love through his food, in particular his rice.” He would send it all over the city in this sort of plastic container.

One could not look at these images and think they are aesthetically beautiful—at least not all of them. Some are lit in a nice way while others are clearly quick snaps without much consideration for light or composition. Rather they simply capture the object. In addition, while there are some that are of potential monetary value—jewelry among other things—most are utterly mundane if not completely random. Nevertheless, the photographs and the stories are no doubt as moving as portraits. They give a sense of the person—their personality, their interests, their sense of humor and their heritage. All of this without seeing the person’s face.

Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer would refer to these as “testimonial objects.” They “testify to the historical contexts and the daily qualities of the past moments in which they were produced.” Likewise, as souvenirs of sorts, they “authenticate the past,” and “trigger memories and connect them indexically to a particular place and time.” It is perhaps this process of authentication through contextualization that makes these memories so powerful. In memorializing through personal objects, The Times gives expression to the potential of depersonalization in national or even global attempts to memorialize. And thus, by focusing on banal objects and memories, this virtual memorial opens a critical possibility for remembering and mourning beyond the logic of permanence and preservation of the individual.

Has the collective, yet differential, dynamic of the pandemic reconfigured the politics of memory and grief in some small way? What other sorts of innovations has the pandemic wrought?


Further reading:

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing: 20. Illustrated edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Los Angeles Review of Books. “How to Be an Alien: Ian Bogost’s ‘Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing,’” November 19, 2013. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/how-to-be-an-alien.

Manning, Peter, Sarah Moore, Jordan Tchilingirian, and Kate Woodthorpe. “Remembering and Narrativising COVID-19: An Early Sociological Take.” Sociology, January 31, 2023, 00380385221142503. https://doi.org/10.1177/00380385221142503.

Schmidt-Wulffen, Stephan, and Lynne Tillman. Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places: The Complete Works. Revised and Expanded edition. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2014.

“The Politics of Grief.” Accessed December 11, 2023. https://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/research/research-centers/history-of-emotions/citizenship-and-nationbuilding/the-politics-of-grief.