Margie Chavez has a special relationship with her dog, Deke. “He’s a rescue from Puerto Rico that we’ve had in the family for almost six years now,” says Chavez, who is assistant to dean John L. Jackson Jr. at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication.
When COVID required many people to start working from home in March 2020, Chavez soon had a new, furry officemate—one who enjoyed getting up close and personal. “My puppy was super excited to sit under, on, or near me while I worked,” she says. “The first picture I took was just the two of us sitting at my desk. My family seemed to like the photo, so I wondered how I could make it better.”
Soon came images of Deke and Chavez both wearing sombreros, or of Deke dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants. In one, Deke acts as a pretend easel as Chavez, donning a brown, curly-haired Bob Ross wig, “paints” a picture.
That last photo now hangs in a new exhibit at the Annenberg School called “Apart Together,” which includes hundreds of images and short text submitted by Annenberg faculty, staff, and students. The showcase, conceived by Annenberg technologist Kyle Cassidy and Peter Coyle, an art teacher at West Philadelphia High School who previously taught at Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, aims to highlight the idea that despite not physically being in the same place the past 18 months, we were all still connected.
In other words, apart together.
“The things you went through, the things that I went through, we weren’t alone in those. What scared me also scared other people. What made me happy also made others happy,” Cassidy says. “I realize from this that we all have shared experiences.”
An idea takes root
In March 2020, Cassidy started taking portraits of doctors and nurses in Philadelphia, recording their initial thoughts about what was then a distant concept called COVID-19. “This was before we had our first COVID case in this area,” he says. “That turned into a giant oral history project and art installation of life-size photos at the Science History Institute at 3rd and Chestnut.”
The installation led to lectures at some local Philly high schools, including one at West Philly High about art during the pandemic. “Afterward, Pete Coyle, the art teacher called me,” Cassidy says. “The students were super excited, talking about art, about how they could use it to make themselves feel less useless—which is how I felt at the beginning of the pandemic. It was difficult for me to just sit home.”
Brainstorming with Coyle and Hadiya Gaiters, a photographer who had previously worked at Annenberg but is now part of the School of Arts & Sciences Computing team, they came up with an idea: Ask students to submit cellphone photos that represented stories they would’ve told their peers had they been in person.
The trio created a simple mechanism through which the students could upload their images, then Coyle secured a grant to print them. “At first, students were puzzled that people were interested in seeing photos of their everyday life,” Coyle says. “Now, incoming freshmen, eyeing the images of their peers, eagerly ask if the program is going to be repeated.” The exhibit, which opened in May 2020, is still hanging in the courtyard of West Philly High.
“It was such a good experience, not only for the kids to see their pictures printed out large, but also for them to get off their chests the stories they had but couldn’t share last year,” Cassidy adds. “I realized this project, it’s so adaptable that I wanted to do this here as well.” He got the permission he needed for a show at Annenberg, to hang in the Annenberg Forum on the building’s first floor, and the project took off.
‘How long we’d waited’
Almost as soon as the call to the Annenberg community went out, images flooded in. Baking projects and masked faces and Zoom meetings. Newborns and toddlers and family selfies. Knitting projects and nature. The 2020 Presidential election. And many, many pets—in backpacks, sprawled on floors and legs. Chavez sent in half a dozen images from what she called her “Deke and Me” series.
Litty Paxton, associate dean for undergraduate studies at Annenberg, took a different approach, moving chronologically through the pandemic with her photos. “Kyle was very clear to say, ‘You don’t just have to send upbeat photos. That’s not what this is about,’” Paxton recalls. “We were told we could send in up to 10, so I sent in 10.”
She started with a late-February 2020 image of the funeral of her cousin, who had died from cancer. Though it was before the U.S. felt COVID-19’s full effects, Paxton attended virtually because she had just had surgery to remove breast cancer and was concerned about the risks of international travel.
Next, she added a happier shot from April 2020. “I live on a beautiful street. Everyone knows everyone. People did all kinds of things to signal care and support,” she says. “My contribution was to make a cake and put it on the porch. People came by and took slices.”
She included a photo from her radiation treatment, as well as a pair of side-by-side images of her and her dad, who passed away suddenly in July 2020. She ended on a moving photo showing the first time she’d hugged her mom in a year and a half. “How long we’d waited for that moment,” she says.
Pulling back the curtain
There’s currently no end date for the exhibit, and Cassidy says he hopes that even as people return to campus, shifting away from the virtual world of the past 18 months, they’ll continue to submit photos. “I’ll keep going until we run out of space, or until I get tired of hanging pictures up,” he says.
After all, the images pull back the curtain on life often concealed at work, which, to Cassidy, is a good change. “I have a deeper view into the real lives of people who I saw every day but didn’t know anything about really,” he says. “It’s weird that it took a global pandemic for that to happen. Here, often, and I guess everywhere, you tend to be your job to other people in the office. This show reinforces for me that we’re all people first.”
People like Chavez, the dog lover and assistant to the dean, or Paxton, the daughter sitting virtual vigil at her dad’s hospital bedside in England and undergrad dean who teaches a course on ritual communication.
“So many people had to say goodbye to their loved ones over Zoom or BlueJeans or Facetime or telephone or hands pressed to the window of a nursing home,” Paxton says. “The in-person rituals so vital to processing loss were also casualties of COVID.” On her decision to share such personal images, she is clear: “It’s important for us to model to students that life can be really hard but you’re going to get through it—even if it doesn’t feel like you are.”
Those words ring true for the pandemic as a whole, applicable not just to students but to anyone. Though COVID-19 is still not behind us, photos from the early days—like many now hanging in the Annenberg Forum—offer an important reminder of just how far we’ve come.