Viewing 2021 through a lens

Photojournalist Kylie Cooper’s annotated photo essay about the liminality of 2021 captured the Capitol insurrection, the Ground Zero commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and more.

Just six days into 2021, Kylie Cooper, a senior in the School of Arts & Sciences, realized she was witnessing American history in the making. As supporters of then-President Donald Trump congregated in Washington, D.C., what began as a rally against President-elect Joe Biden’s victory became the violent event now known as the Capitol insurrection.

Kylie Cooper.
Penn senior and photojournalist Kylie Cooper. (Image: Chase Sutton)

On multiple occasions, Cooper was chased and harassed by the crowd outside the Capitol, despite identifying herself as an independent photographer. Some yelled at her to leave, and at one point, a man with a megaphone instructed the crowd to “get” Cooper and smash her camera. She managed to escape unharmed, and with a set of unforgettable images from the day—rioters attempting to scale the building’s scaffolding, waving American flags set against bursts of smoke bombs.

In September 2021, Cooper visited New York to photograph the commemorative events being held on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, without any intent to publish the images. There, she was reminded of an essay she recently read in her Ritual Communication class, taught by Professor Felicity “Litty” Paxton, which discussed how people used rituals to cope with the aftermath of 9/11.

Cooper realized she had attended and photographed many other ritualistic events throughout the year, and identified a further connective thread between them. Each illustrated a state of liminality, of being suspended between our past and future lives—a concept she had also learned about in class.

These reflections became part of a larger, interwoven narrative—“2021: The Year of Liminality”, a photographic essay that she created as a final project for Ritual Communication in the Fall 2021 semester.

In addition to helping her process and reflect, the project enabled Cooper to interweave her love of photojournalism with her communication coursework.

Protesters raise their fists on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Protesters raise their fists on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art during a protest for George Floyd on June 4, 2020. (Image: Kylie Cooper)

“Within the major, I’m concentrating in critical journalism, so I’ve taken a lot of classes that raised ethical questions and made me rethink the approaches I take to photojournalism,” she says. “A lot of comms courses have made me consider, ‘What stories should I be telling, and what stories do I want to be telling?’”

This story is by Alina Ladyzhensky. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.