The Surreality of Documenting 2020
Photographs by Peter van Agtmael
In the early months of 2020, the photographer Peter van Agtmael covered a gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, and a Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. Van Agtmael had been working as a photojournalist for 16 years, documenting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and life across the United States. By mid-March, the news was closer to home: He spent the beginning of lockdown recording the world from the window of his Brooklyn apartment.
“I am still struggling to figure out exactly how to photograph this thing,” van Agtmael wrote in a diary entry on March 17, 2020, the first time he ventured into pandemic-stricken Manhattan. “What will resonate in a year or a decade? It’s just a bunch of pictures of people with masks.”
A year later, van Agtmael published 2020, a collection of photographs and diary entries from a singular span of American life. Over the course of 13 months (the book ends with Joe Biden’s inauguration), van Agtmael went to more Trump rallies; immersed himself in protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd; and, in Washington, D.C., captured both the revelry that followed Biden’s win and the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
But some of the most affecting shots in the book are quieter, more solitary—eschewing big, newsmaking events for private moments of fear, grief, disorientation, and sometimes even joy. We see van Agtmael’s hand, raw from the constant washing of early spring, and a masked woman surrounded by tree buds that, van Agtmael points out, evoke the coronavirus’s protein spikes. A girl does a backbend in a park while, nearby, a man in a gas mask reads a book; a closed playground, empty despite the seemingly lovely weather, radiates an eerie stillness. “A touch of surrealism, a touch of abstraction, was the best way I could find to reckon with the trauma of the events,” van Agtmael told me.
In May, van Agtmael began working on an assignment at a funeral home in Queens that was then handling five times its usual volume of bodies. He recorded how he watched “the stringy, sticky blood clots getting pumped out of a deceased COVID victim.” In addition to his photographs from the funeral home, the book includes a haunting family portrait that van Agtmael took as he videochatted with his mother and sister while editing photos from the assignment—life and death, side by side.
He is still, he said, not quite sure how we’ll look back on our pandemic year, what narratives we’ll form. “It doesn’t really feel like the past yet,” van Agtmael said. “Maybe in 20 years I’ll see it completely differently.”