March 2020 hit university campuses with unexpected changes, disbelief, and, of course, challenges. A part of me feels it is redundant to narrate the experiences we just went through – since in the present moment, we all know them, and still feel them. For posterity, the other part of me nags me to be specific that this is the month when we were asked to teach remotely, to stay home, to shelter in place, in order to protect our communities from the rapid spread of the novel and little understood COVID-19 virus.

Woman in front of laptop, with coffee mug, calendar in the background
New routine as of March 2020, working from home, while balancing (even more than usual) my duties as a parent and now-home school teacher to my two children.

So in March 2020 I had to shift gears in my teaching. In my journalism course at Oakland University, JRN 3310 Digital Photojournalism, I offered my students the option to drop their plans for their semester-long documentary photo story and take photos instead of their current experience.

I called the project choice “ethnography of a pandemic.” The results are impressive. The experiences are as diverse as my students’ life situations; the tone of the projects are as diverse as the emotions we have been all experiencing.

I am touched by the loneliness in one student’s “house without a soul” as his project mirrors his feelings leaving his dorm room and moving back home; I am touched by the lively spirit of one student’s family, who takes walks and bakes a “coronacation” cake; in another home, the routine of everyday life is marked by boredom. My students caught on camera the closed playgrounds, the empty pizza restaurants, the frozen construction sites, the impacted shelves in grocery stores, the desks that have now become “the university” and workplace, the cleaning supplies, the video conference calls with family members, the puzzle games, the deserted sorority house, the latex gloves. It’s all there, and it is informative and touching, a little piece of our contemporary history. I hope the day comes when I show future classes how crazy and unusual this all was… Or where it all started…

Young woman touches hands through glass front door with older man, who is smilling. Next to him inside the house is another older woman.
Samantha Hill reaches out to her grandfather Edward Skowron through the glass of his front door, while Diane Skowron watches. Both Edward and Diane have preexisting conditions, making it more dangerous for them to be infected by the virus. Photo credit: Katelyn Hill

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