The International Center of Photography had only been open in its new Essex Street building for two months—and its new Managing Director of Programs, David Campany, had only had his "feet under the desk" in the curatorial offices for a few days—when it was forced to close its doors on March 13. A week later, the institution announced it was launching a hashtag, #ICPConcerned, as a forum for sharing images from around the pandemic-stricken world. Five months later, that hashtag has become a physical exhibition, hung in ICP's very real galleries—galleries that remain shuttered.
"I genuinely started this show not knowing if and when we were going to reopen, and it was still worthwhile doing," Campany says over Zoom. Zoom, it turns out, was exactly what Campany was trying to escape when he began working on the exhibition; there are only so many video calls one can do in a day "without going mad," he laughs. But what he really wanted to avoid was just switching ICP's lights back on once the institution can reopen with everything as it was when it closed. "As if nothing had happened between now and March?!" he scoffs.
Meanwhile, the hashtag was continuing to gain steam—Campany remembers hitting 10,000 posts on the hashtag as New York reported 10,000 confirmed cases—and evolve in unexpected ways. Protests broke out nationwide following George Floyd's death at the heads of the police, and they began to appear on the hashtag. "Suddenly streets go from empty to full," Campany says of the resulting images. "People go from alone to being together." Even now, as new events took place, from activism in Eastern Europe or wildfires in California, they manifest in the hashtag's feed.
Having decided early in the summer that adapting the social media initiative into a real-life exhibition was a worthy endeavor, the ICP was faced with the daunting task of hand-picking images from the tens of thousands posted. Rather than "be God" and choose all of them himself, Campany invited the whole ICP staff to help with the process. Each selector was left to their own devices, but gathered to discuss key issues as they arose—like the ethics of displaying photographs that reveal protesters' faces. After a photo was chosen, the institution reached out to the photographer behind the image, and asked for permission to use it in the exhibition. Of the 500 chosen so far, no one's refused. "The amount of goodwill is extraordinary," Campany says.
Once that hurdle is cleared, Campany himself prints the photographs at a station set up in the exhibition space, placing them in a roughly chronological order on the gallery walls. "I guess there were moments where I wondered whether I was even supposed to be working in a closed museum, but I was an essential worker, I thought," he quips.
The ICP is now hoping to open in late September, and finally welcome visitors to view the space in person. In the meantime, the #ICPConcerned installation is being documented online; audio guides recorded by the photographers themselves add welcome depth to the otherwise digitized exhibition.
When the institution does turn on the lights again, the show will likely still be evolving: Campany has set aside space on the walls to fill with photographs taken from now through election day. Why November 3? "I think the kinds of choices that are now represented and presented by that election are being felt everywhere."
But as Campany well knows, events aren't being felt equally around the world—not in regards to the turn towards authoritarianism, and not in regards to the pandemic. The show is "not a window on the world, there’s nothing so objective as that," he says. "But I think it’s a project and I think it’s an exhibition that people can look at, participate in, empathize with, but also see the contradictions." He adds, "the disparities are pretty stark when you actually look through the show. And that’s going to be for a viewer to confront."
"#ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis" is now on view online.
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