Portrait of our time: Amherst College photo series aims to profile campus community during COVID-19

  • Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • Staff from the Amherst College Counseling Center. the Memorial Hill Project

  • Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • George Qiao, at right, with his wife, Lingyi, far left, and children Max and Eva. Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • Essential staff —  members of the Amherst College Police Department —  who have continued to work on site through the pandemic. Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • The lighter side of the Memorial Hill Project. the Memorial Hill Project

  • Amherst College President Biddy Martin with her four-legged friend. PhotoS by The Memorial Hill Project

  • Amherst College student Rana Barghout, class of 2020. Photo by and courtesy of the Memorial Hill Project

  • Amherst College students Dagim Belete, Maya Roberts, and Johnathan Paul. the Memorial Hill Project

Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2020 5:01:03 PM

As a historian, George Qiao knows the importance of documenting the past. He also understands that both the nation and the world, in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, are in a historic moment.

That’s what prompted Qiao, who teaches history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, to create an extended portrait series called Memorial Hill 2020, for which he and two student assistants have photographed close to 300 people with a connection to the college — students, faculty, staff members, alumni and in some cases family members.

The black and white portraits, taken both up close and from a slight distance, have been staged on Memorial Hill, an iconic spot on campus that offers a broad view of the Holyoke Range to the south and features a circular monument originally built to honor Amherst graduates who died in the two world wars.

For Qiao, who took up serious photography several years ago after surviving a plane crash outside San Francisco, this new project represents an effort to mark the era of COVID-19 and its impact on the college, as well as to celebrate the campus community at a time when so many people have been forced to be apart from one another.

“We’ve found that people have been really excited about being photographed,” Qiao said during a recent call from his Amherst home. “People want to connect … For a lot of them, [being photographed] was the first time in weeks that they interacted with someone outside their home or immediate family.”

Begun in late April, the project has slowly but steadily continued over the summer, and Qiao says he’s considering extending it into the fall, when a limited number of students, primarily freshmen and sophomores, will be returning to campus. It would be interesting to document students willing to take part in the project, he notes, and then follow them over the next four years, given they’ll represent the first generation of Amherst students beginning their collegiate careers during the pandemic.

In the sessions already staged, Qiao and his  two student assistants — Haoran Tong and Kalea Ramsey, both class of 2023 — have collected a striking group of portraits that can appear both serious and humorous. There’s one of college president Biddy Martin, for instance, holding a small dog in her lap as she sits on the circular memorial. In a close-up of Olga Fedorova, a Fulbright Scholar and language teaching assistant, Fedorova’s eyes crinkle as she either laughs or smiles beneath her face mask.

“With people wearing masks, it creates a special focus on the eyes as a means of expression,” Qiao noted.

On a more serious note, six members of the college’s Counseling Department are shown grouped by the war memorial, all wearing masks and standing or sitting several feet apart.

Qiao says all the close-up portraits were shot with the subjects wearing face masks; in the more distanced photos, shot with a telephoto lens, people could appear with or without a mask.

Some people have used their masks to make statements on other events roiling the nation in recent months. Student Johnathan Paul, class of 2022, wears one inscribed with the words “I can’t breathe,” a reference to the words of the late George Floyd, killed in late May by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

In another close-up, Tong, one of the student assistants, wears a mask that says “Not the Chinese Virus,” a rebuttal to the charge that the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. is China’s fault, given the virus originated there.

“That’s also part of what we’re documenting — it’s the other history that’s being made right now,” said Qiao, a native of China.

Qiao said his first inspiration for the photo series came after he looked to see what kind of material existed in campus archives for how the college was affected by three dramatic 20th-century events: the two world wars and the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-19. “There wasn’t much of a pictorial record,” he said. “So I wondered if there was something I could do about this strange time we’re in.”

It wasn’t until he bumped into Tong while walking across campus one day in April, after most students had been sent home, that the idea took root, Qiao says. Tong, who had taken a class with Qiao the previous fall, said he’d be able to contact students by email. Kalea Ramsey, the other student assistant, then got on board, and the project was expanded to staff, faculty and others with campus connections.

Some of those photographed have also contributed written thoughts on the the pandemic, like student Dagim Belete, class of 2022, who wrote: “A grid of six feet by six feet frustrates me. However, it’s been a time to look deep inside and reflect.”

Qaio has brought his own background in dealing with disruption and hardship to the project. In July 2013, when he was working on his doctorate at Stanford University, he was flying back to San Francisco after doing research in Taiwan when his plane — Asiana Airlines Flight 214 — crashed while landing, killing three passengers and injuring over 180, 49 of them seriously.

Qaio says he wasn’t badly hurt. But the three people who died were just three rows behind him, he notes, and injuries throughout the plane seemed to be inflicted “very randomly. It was mysterious and very disturbing.”

As he writes on his website, he decided to take up photography to try and process the trauma he went through, as well as “the sense of limbo between life and death, the mental scar, the struggle for internal peace, the efforts to reconnect with people, and the rediscovery of the self.”

Qiao has also created a smaller, more impressionistic photo series, “Corona Days” on his website, with color shots including empty public settings, a statue at Amherst College festooned with a face mask, and a picture of his wife, Lingyi, giving their young son, Max, a haircut.

At some point, he hopes he’ll be able to create prints of some of the portraits from Memorial Hill 2020 that can be used, with accompanying text, for a physical exhibit at the college; perhaps such an exhibit could then become part of the permanent record for Amherst of the COVID-19 era.

“But that’s still in the future, or course,” he said. “We all still have a long way to go.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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