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At Harvard, photos record ‘this very strange period of collective isolation’ across Latin America

"Mass for the Dead" by Lima-based photographer Rodrigo Abd.
"Mass for the Dead" by Lima-based photographer Rodrigo Abd.Rodrigo Abd

When June Carolyn Erlick and Marcela V. Ramos put out a call for photography submissions over the summer, the Harvard-based Latin America experts expected about 200 entries by their Sept. 1 deadline. To her surprise, Erlick’s inbox flooded with more than 300 submissions in the first three weeks alone. The images came from professional artists and photojournalists based in more than 10 Latin American countries, each capturing the specific devastation of COVID-19 in their communities.

Some of the best submissions can be viewed online in “Documenting the Impact of COVID-19 through Photography,” a virtual exhibition produced by Harvard University. Harvard-adjacent photography professionals pored over hundreds of entries, determining just four winners for the show’s collection. Complementary selections were made by co-curators Erlick and Ramos.


Erlick also works as editor-in-chief of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America. The Globe caught up with her via phone to ask about the exhibit and a few of its strongest images.

Q. Did you notice any themes in the submissions you received?

A. We had a balance between extraordinary front-line scenes in hospitals and cemeteries, hardly seen city views of our cities in Latin America, and less obvious, very intimate and powerful images that were related to domestic life during isolation.

Q. Why did you choose photography as the medium?

A. We were thinking about how these photos will be seen in the historical memory. I have an aunt whom I never knew who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. My mother, her sister, was just a baby. I have not been able to find any real photos of how daily life was affected and what it was like for children who lost their siblings. I have a yearning for that visual record of what that period was like and was thinking that we have a chance now to document the impact of COVID-19, looking at this very strange period of collective isolation and what it meant for the continent.


Rodrigo Abd's "Collecting the Dead."
Rodrigo Abd's "Collecting the Dead." Rodrigo Abd

Q. Tell me about the photo series awarded first place. It’s by Rodrigo Abd, an AP photographer based in Peru.

A. For me, Abd’s photos conjure up the eeriness and the isolation and the ghastliness of COVID-19. But they also have a way of echoing other images. If you look at the photo “Mass for the Dead,” you have the priest with all these pictures of people who have died. That image, for me, conjures up the powerful photos of The Disappeared, and these are other disappeared for a very different reason.

The people carrying the body over the desert [in an image titled “Collecting the Dead”] is such an isolated space, but it’s like they’re on the moon in space suits in this very, very unreal atmosphere. I think his voice and his vision really reflects collective isolation.

Miguel Tovar's "Dusk Phase 3."
Miguel Tovar's "Dusk Phase 3."Miguel Tovar

Q. What about documentary photographer Miguel Tovar’s second-place photograph, capturing an empty downtown in Mexico?

A. It stops time. Over this quiet, desolated city, you can’t see people in the photo, just a sign that says “stay at home.” Sometimes, time with COVID goes very fast, and other times it feels like it has totally stopped. And of course, people’s lives are being stopped, too. At the moment on that clock, somebody died.

Yan Boechat's "Death in the Amazon."
Yan Boechat's "Death in the Amazon."Yan Boechat

Q. You ended up with two third-place winners. What was significant about Brazilian journalist Yan Boechat’s “Death in the Amazon”?


A. His photo just evokes the anguish. I find that photo really hard to look at. Brazil has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the world. It shows the pain afflicting ordinary people.

"Portrait of Adailson Silva de Oliveira" from Gui Christ's “The Luxury of Social Isolation.”
"Portrait of Adailson Silva de Oliveira" from Gui Christ's “The Luxury of Social Isolation.”Gui Christ

Q. Also winning third place was a series by Gui Christ, based in São Paulo. It’s titled “The Luxury of Social Isolation.”

A. This is also a very urban one in a very different sense. I think of him as watching life as it goes by. His photos have a stillness to them with the masks and people against their environments. I love the one in the stadium [“Portrait of Adriano Silva Santos”]. It seems counterintuitive — you have soccer, which is such a lively sport. Then you have the absolute quietness of waiting there in the mask.

From Nicoló Filippo Rosso's "Collective Isolation in Sibundoy Valley" series.
From Nicoló Filippo Rosso's "Collective Isolation in Sibundoy Valley" series.Nicoló Filippo Rosso

Q. Honorable mention also went to Colombian photographer Nicoló Filippo Rosso. What resonated with you here?

A. It’s looking at an Indigenous population in almost a mystical way through the use of his light and shadows. What I really love is how he managed to convey how isolated these people are and do it in a way that, truly through nature, reflects collective isolation.


At the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. websites.harvard.edu/drclascovid19exhibit

Interview has been condensed and edited. Grace Griffin can be reached at grace.griffin@globe.com or on Twitter @GraceMGriffin