Portraiture Photography Class Shifts Focus During COVID-19 Pandemic

This spring, Graduate Liberal Studies student Kristen Cardona enrolled in her first-ever photography course, ARTS 613: Studies in Portraiture and Self-Portraiture. While learning how to better use a camera, she practiced taking images of herself, family, friends, and neighbors.

Heading into early March, the assignment was to photograph strangers.

And then the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation. All Wesleyan courses moved to an online format.

“This threw a huge curve ball! Obviously we couldn’t finish photographing strangers,” said Cardona, who is the program coordinator for continuing studies at Wesleyan. “People are scared. Simple requests to take a photo seem to be more pressure than many people are comfortable with during these trying times of quarantine. That shift was obvious during the semester.”

Consequentially, Cardona and many of her classmates shifted their efforts back to self-portraits. And in-person classes were rescheduled via Zoom on Wednesday evenings.

The course instructor, Marion Belanger, visiting assistant professor in liberal studies, encouraged the class to push their own boundaries and make pictures that reflected their own reality, including documenting life in quarantine.

“I told them to disregard the syllabus, and to just photograph their everyday,” Belanger said. “Documenting the everyday is also useful when photographers feel like they are in a creative limbo, or blocked in some way. I thought this could be a way to move through the fear and disruptions. How could something so dire and devasting be ignored?”

Belanger expected that each student would end the class with a cohesive body of photographs.

“Sometimes creativity thrives under restrictive requirements, and I am very impressed that each student has continued to push their photographic boundaries despite such confinement,” she said. “Some work is very much about the transition to the epidemic and I’ve seen themes of loneliness, fantasy, family portraits at home, portraits at a distance, and masked portraits.”

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In Cardona’s self-portrait, “Unmasking Dismay,” left, the mask symbolizes “better days when masks were used for masquerade, simple playful disguises—and not for personal protection,” she says. Cardona surrounded herself with blue: “the blue room, the blue mask, my blue eyes, my blue feelings—me, enveloped in blue. [Being] dressed in black reflects how I feel isolated in quarantine. Yet there’s still an aspect of whimsy to my nature and a glimmer of hope. The sun coming through the window reminds me of hope; the cross behind my head, although blurred, reminds me of my wavering, yet ever-present faith. The wispiness of my hair reminds me that life can still be playful even during quarantine.”

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In Cardona’s portrait “Monday Nights Lights: Quarantine Day 21,” right, the sunset fades behind her friend Lisa, who lost her job due to COVID-19 and lives with her elderly parents. “I wanted to show the distress and hardship she is facing. The antique truck encroaching upon her is a physical representation of the weight she feels to protect her elderly parents. The many lines and angles in the photo create a sense of being boxed in. The ladder and stairs are included to show the upward battle she feels. The fence highlights how we are all feeling trapped by our circumstances. But beyond the fence, the tree lines are free-flowing and expansive. In appreciating the nature beyond the fence, we realize the fence is not a barrier, but a hurdle that we must all globally overcome to reach the beauty of nature on the other side. Nature, a beauty and a beast—both generated this pandemic, making us fear death, and also [keeping] us inspired to keep on living.” Cardona acknowledged that we all face quarantine differently. “It is an easier experience for me, personally. That is seen in my portrait. Lisa, by contrast, is really struggling with the situation and I think that is portrayed in the photo,” she said.

Tina Frazer, administrative assistant for continuing studies, said her work has changed slightly since the stay-at-home orders, “because although I am a homebody, I’m not used to being confined in my home. I also would usually take pictures of family for my homework or project I’m working towards, and I can’t really do that.”

Frazer asked her son if she could take his senior pictures as her final class project. He politely refused, noting that barber shops are closed.

Despite the challenge of being home, Frazer says she’s gotten creative in her home taking pictures. “I’ve used filters and depth of field to blur out or remove backgrounds from photos. I have taken a variety of pictures from food to nature to everyday life to being all dressed up with literally nowhere to go, just trying to capture the feeling and gravity of this time that we’re in.”

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Frazer says she’s been trying more recipes during the pandemic, including a meal consisting of grits with kale, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and herb cheese, and artisanal plant-based apple maple sausage, right. She also captured herself at an outdoor worship service, center. 

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Frazer photographed herself returning from the store, recording a monologue for her Experiences in Acting class, and longing to go outside.

Lifelong photography enthusiast Heather Brooke, executive assistant to the president, began the semester photographing close-up portraits of family and friends. She had recently started a “strangers of IKEA” series when the pandemic led to the temporary closing of the home-furnishing retailer.

“I planned to do that project pre-COVID-19, so I had to pivot back to my close portrait work, with photos of loved ones wearing masks instead,” Brooke said. “I’d do these shoots outdoors, complete with social distancing.”

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Pictured at left is a portrait of a stranger in IKEA, and at right are images of Brooke’s sister Shannon, pre-quarantine and post-quarantine. Studies in Photographic Portraiture and Self-Portraiture is the second GLS photo class that Brooke has taken.

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“My husband Lee has been a willing subject throughout the semester,” Brooke said.

Ali McFadzen, department assistant for the Financial Aid Office, has 10 years of experience behind a camera. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her photography focused on landscapes, nature, and the environment. Ventures outside before sunrise were common. Photographing while living in isolation, however, was something she had no experience with whatsoever.

With the COVID-19-influenced environment and imposed social distancing, she turned to creative self-portraits focused on the impact and emotions of self-isolation.

“Having never photographed people, let alone self-portraits, it has been a challenge to get comfortable on the other side of the camera,” she said.

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While McFadzen is extremely thankful for the ability to work from home, it has also presented its challenges. “The typical, and once cursed, interruptions of an office environment that would take me away from my computer are now gone. Emails have tripled, meetings taking place through Zoom, conversations through Skype and Teams, classwork through Moodle,” she said. “In this image, I am trying to convey the feeling of being unable to step away, unable to escape from my computer.”

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McFadzen finds it virtually impossible to avoid conversations, news, memes, or song parodies that utilize pandemic related buzz words. “It’s like the most depressing game of Scrabble,” she said, referring to the first photo on the left. Pictured in center, “the act of ‘getting ready’ has all but disappeared. The new and temporary ‘normal’ requires no embellishments.” And at right, “the world awaits us.”

Prior to social distancing, Kelly Anderson, marketing and outreach coordinator for Graduate Liberal Studies, preferred to photograph other people, but now she’s become her own main subject.

“I also explored how we can use art as an escape when the rest of the world feels like too much,” she said.

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“I do feel more freedom to experiment when taking self-portraits,” Anderson said. “I found this has helped me become more observant of how the light falls and what would make a good shot.”

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Anderson carries her camera with her at all times. “I realize sometimes a simple moment, like hanging out in a bird blind with my husband, can be a great opportunity for a portrait,” she said.

More information about Wesleyan’s Graduate Liberal Studies program is available online.