Some of the photographs show signs warning people to stay properly distanced from one another in public places. Others depict experiments in everyday life ranging from a Zoom Bible study class to takeout cocktails. 

A self-portrait by nurse practitioner Kelli Hardin in Woodstock during the pandemic, submitted to the “Corona Collective” (Kelli Hardin/Atlanta History Center).

And there are, of course, pictures of masks. Lots of masks.

Taken together, the photos capture a sort of composite image of the COVID-19 pandemic in Atlanta. 

What did the pandemic look like? The Atlanta History Center compiled hundreds of images showing everything from medical personnel in full personal protective gear to car-less streets and parking lots outside usually busy gathering places scattered across metro Atlanta. In those photos from the days of shutdown, it looks all quiet from a shopping mall in Kennesaw to downtown Lawrenceville to Little Five Points to The Varsity.

The History Center compiled its COVID collection by gathering images submitted by members of the public and mixing in photos shot by professional photographers. Now, more than a year after the pandemic began, there are more than 1,000 items in the history center’s COVID pandemic collection, said Paul Crater, the history center’s vice president for collections and research services. 

The most important moments

The collection includes photos, written personal reactions to the pandemic, and some objects, Crater said.

“People have shared with us some of their most important moments,” Crater said. “What stands out to me is the type of moments people were willing to share.” 

One couple sent in photos of their masked wedding. Families contributed pictures of personally distanced gatherings: a Sweet 16 party; a birthday celebration held in the family garage with partygoers dropping off presents outside; masked families gathered for Easter and Thanksgiving. 

One family, Crater said, even submitted a model of a castle they’d built from pizza boxes that had been used to deliver dinner when the family couldn’t leave the house.

Calling for public help

The archive marks something new for the history center. The center usually collects items that illustrate particular periods of Atlanta’s past. But this time, when the pandemic started, the center’s curators put out a public call for contributions that illustrated how people were dealing with the pandemic as it happened.

One reason they did that, Crater said, was because after COVID-19 first appeared, people started asking the center for information on the 1918 flu pandemic to shed light on how COVID could disrupt lives.

 “We had nothing,” he said. “The Atlanta History Center has been around almost 100 years, and in 100 years, we didn’t have anything, or at least not anything we knew of [related to the 1918 pandemic]. That was a motivation for us to begin to collect from the public.”

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadrons above Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital on May 2, 2020 in a fly-over in Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. intended as a pandemic tribute and morale-booster. The photo was taken by Elaine Bullard at Oakland Cemetery (Elaine Bullard/Atlanta History Center).

Crater and other historians at the center had heard about institutions scattered around the country that recently had put out calls for public help in gathering materials about historic events as they happened. They figured they’d give it a try. “This was a way to let the public say how the pandemic affected them,” Crater said. “This is another way to collect, to document events as they happen.”

‘Collecting the now’

The historians were so pleased with the results that they employed the same  technique to collect information and images on another major theme of the past year – the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent events in Atlanta, including the election and runoff.

“This is something I think is going to occur more and more in the industry, the archival industry,” Crater said. “It’s called ‘collecting the now.’ I think there’s a greater appreciation among my colleagues and myself about documenting contemporary events.”

When they first asked for public contributions on the COVID pandemic, Crater didn’t know whether the call would be answered or not. “I didn’t know what to expect in terms of interest,” he said. “It turns out there was a great deal of interest in people sharing their stories.”

So, a century from now or whenever the next pandemic roars through and upends everyday lives, people will be able look back at the way we handled things in 2021 as they socially distance and sip a take-out cocktail. And, of course, put on a mask. 

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.