Across the world, people are living through a pandemic the likes of which has not been seen for over 100 years.
While there is little doubt that 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis will be remembered as a dark chapter, it is an extraordinary time in human history and one that is being documented extensively by almost everyone with a smartphone.
One of Canada’s most renowned photographers has taken it upon himself to curate thousands of such images submitted on social media by Canadians across the country, to capture how COVID-19 has altered every facet of their existence.
“It all started when I was looking at photos from the Spanish flu,” George Pimentel said.
With all events cancelled due to the pandemic, including the Toronto International Film Festival where Pimentel has snapped some of his most iconic images, he was left with time on his hands and a desire to do something meaningful with it.
“I thought it’s so important to document the historical value of this pandemic … to archive this for the future. I want to be able to look back at the photos one day and maybe get a sense of what time was like back then,” he explained.
Pimentel began by photographing life during the pandemic for himself — everything from gymnastics practice in a park to a physically distanced visit with his father. Hearing people’s stories as he photographed them has been both heart wrenching and eye opening, he said.
As he started creating a photo essay on his Instagram account, Pimentel began to feel that it was vital to see how others across the country were experiencing the pandemic and get a glimpse of it through their lenses.
To make his vision a reality, he decided to use social media as a hub to gather images from all walks – whether or not they were professional photographers. He began asking people to use #CanadaCOVIDPortrait to share their photos with him on Instagram in hopes of creating a country-wide archive.
“The power of social media — everyone started hash-tagging their photos. We had over 5,000 images come in. It was overwhelming,” he said.
Pimentel said the story of COVID in Canada has so many different chapters — frontline workers, businesses, families, and the elderly to name a few — and the photos he received told rich stories of their real life experiences.
“Each photo tells a story and has the diversity of Canada, from west coast to east coast, we wanted to show everything. There’s photos from Indigenous [people] and Black Lives Matter,” he said, adding that they are all strung together by the common thread of hope and resilience.
“We had over 5,000 images come in.”
Those photos are now part of the ‘Portraits in COVID Times: Documenting a Nation in Change’ exhibit at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.
View some of the images from the exhibit below:
Photos provided by George Pimentel
The exhibit itself is one of the many things impacted by COVID-19. With indoor events and gatherings now prohibited, the outdoor format and large scale was a deliberate and necessary decision in order to make the exhibit accessible to as many people as possible.
“There’s no other exhibit like this,” Pimentel stated. “You can see the exhibit from the streetcar, while you’re riding your bike, while you’re walking down here.”
Habourfront Chief Programming Officer Iris Nemani said Pimentel’s vision for the project was in perfect harmony with the centre’s own goals of engaging with the community and bringing them innovative, COVID-safe programming during a time when their extensive roster of events had to be cancelled.
“How could we use our 10 acres and really create a visual art canvas for the community to engage artists and to also have relevant conversations? What George brought to us was absolutely a current conversation that was so poignant,” she explained.
For the first time, the entire façade of the main Harbourfront building has been taken over for a single exhibit of black and white photographs.
“Our offices are closed, so it was a non-issue for the people working inside the building. This was a moment to do something that was really impactful and large scale, so we just said let’s take over all the windows,” Nemani said.
“There’s no events going on inside and we felt like the only way to do it is outdoors and the best way to do it is to bring it out to the community,” Pimental added. “We’re just so lucky that the Harbourfront has such a great space.”
But even with the entire building covered, there are still more stories to tell. A second site along the waterfront has been chosen for Part 2 of the exhibit, expected to be completed next week.
“When [people] come down, they’re going to see that maybe they can relate to this.”
It will run along Queens Quay near Rees Street on 200 feet of lineal hoarding that will display an additional 30 images in colour.
“This is for the community, both that live here and those who are coming down here, and a way to bring some reflection for what we are all going through together,” Nemani said.
Pimentel added that he hopes the images will help people find common ground during what has been an incredibly divisive and polarizing time for the country.
“When [people] come down, they’re going to see that maybe they can relate to this. The most important thing is maybe they can learn from this and just see how the other side live. And really be sensitive to the issues …and lets all be kinder, it’s COVID,” he said.
Scroll through the images below for a sneak peek of Part 2 of the exhibit
Photos provided by George Pimentel