A Community in Focus image taken on May 29, 2020. Credit: Patrick Ryan

Devastation and rebuilding. Mistrust and faith. Isolation and unity. These are just some of the contradictions that make the Phillips Collection’s year-end exhibition Community in Focus a discordant experience that is both heart-wrenching and heartening—and true to life. Summarizing 2020 isn’t easy, but this project attempts to do just that through a powerful display of hundreds of images from the indescribable last year. The digital exhibition is up on the museum’s website until Feb. 7, and is free to view.

On Oct. 19, 2020, the Phillips posted a call on social media for members of the public to send in photographs from the year, specifying that it was for a project to “capture a unique photographic snapshot of an unprecedented year.” Seasoned photographers and everyday people submitted more than 500 images depicting what life has been like throughout the months of 2020 across the U.S. The photos are organized by the day they were taken, creating a chronological record of this emotionally taxing chapter of
human history.

While many of the images are beautiful, viewers shouldn’t go into Community in Focus expecting a traditional fine art collection. Submissions were open to everyone, regardless of skills level. That, too, is an indication of the times. The year 2020 taught us that the everyday is far from ordinary. The exhibition succeeded in putting community, not just photographers, in focus. 

The virtual display showcases minute details of 2020 that are difficult to describe with words alone. A medical worker wearing personal protective equipment prays while riding in an empty Metro car. Empty streets. Empty restaurants. Empty grocery store shelves. People at home. Couples dancing at a distance wearing face masks. Lone individuals in cities or parks. A clever shot of two people’s shoes facing a social distancing indicator that reads “The Distance Between Us Will Soon Bring Us Back Together.” A toppled monument that seems to be waving goodbye as it is driven away on a truck. Physically distanced weddings and parties. A newborn baby nursing in her masked mother’s arms as she sits on a hospital bed. Waves rolling into the shore during Hurricane Teddy. Flowers left outside the Supreme Court to pay respects to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she lay in repose. A photo of a man reading a copy of the Washington Post that reads “Biden defeats Trump.” The words “Black Lives Matter” and one of George Floyd and Eric Garner’s final sentences, “I Can’t Breathe,” written on signs, walls, and face masks. A protest sign that reads “This Shit Is Exhausting.”

The entire collection of submitted images is presented in videos, one for almost every month of the year (January and February are combined and, since the exhibition was put together during the last month of the year, there are no photos from December). Select images that are viewable on clickable slideshows just beneath each video serve as a preview. The Phillips also displays photos that were sent in during the six-week submission period on its blog “The Experiment Station,” again organized in months, and in a YouTube video

Practically speaking, the digital format allows viewers to take breaks from looking at the content—a relief from a mental health standpoint. Revisiting 2020 is hard, so it is helpful that Community in Focus allows viewers to walk away from the screen if the exhibition becomes too overwhelming. Since the photos are organized in months, there is a framework to digest the project at a slow, stop-and-go pace.

Like in real life, nature provides respite from the realities of this era. There are numerous images of trees; animals; empty fields, parks, and forests; bodies of water; and flowers, including one virus-shaped bloom that the photographer says reminded them of the novel coronavirus. This has been a time of reconnecting with the environment, and one of Community in Focus’ strongest aspects is showcasing that. Since nature shots didn’t dominate the front pages of newspapers, the ones collected here are like a peek into untold stories in quiet corners of 2020. 

Some of the photographs in the exhibition are clearly informal. A medical worker, for example, added text and emojis to a shot of her wearing a medical gown and PPE, writing what she calls a PSA: “Vote like you want to wear this as a Ghostbuster for Halloween, not as protection against COVID-19 at work.” Her message encapsulates the urgency that our society felt around the 2020 election, when snapshots became opportunities for political statements. Casual photos of pets are also prevalent, serving as an indication of how valuable the bond between humans and their animal companions has been during this period of isolation. 

Everyday shots of life at home feel familiar today, like a concert livestreaming on a laptop and a handwritten cardboard sign outside of a bedroom that says “Meeting in Progress.” These and all of the 500-plus photographs might help future generations understand the intricacies and enormity of 2020. 

Another powerful element of Community in Focus is the intimacy that the web display creates between the viewer and the screen. This was a practical rather than artistic choice due to the ongoing public health restrictions, yet the virtual component adds another layer to the installation’s artistry. So much of our lives took place digitally during 2020. Zoom conferences, FaceTime with family, Slack conversations with coworkers, and social media posts connected us when physical distance kept us apart. It feels right that Community in Focus follows suit. 

Viewers are able to sit quietly—and perhaps, once again, alone—with these images and contemplate a year that has frequently felt paused. Community in Focus demonstrates that 2020 was anything but. These photos are bursting with life, both its joy and despair. The show is a testament to how we, as a human community, continued on.

The digital exhibition is available at phillipscollection.org through Feb. 7.