Photographing Urban Life in Emergence, and Why

Chuck Wolfe
3 min readMay 14, 2020

Since March, photographs have played a major role in illustrating the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: life in quarantine. Particularly in public places, emptiness inspired documentation, and physical distancing-or a rebellious lack thereof-became regular topics for online publication and social media. Simultaneously, technology allowed online meetings as a richly occupied substitute for physical space, with photographs of tiled Zoom windows as the common ground, replacing streets and squares with variably-sized screens.

Amid lockdown, Instagram and Facebook have accelerated their virtual street corner role. For some, travel photos have become family photos or views out the window. For others, self-promotion has moved from professional accomplishments to bread making. But as we move to the second phase of emergence from quarantine- life in emergence -I believe the photographic challenges really begin.

The challenges parallel my interest in local variations-the blends of culture and character that occur in physical places, even in ordinary times. When we venture out again, we will be far more aware of the compromises to our internal solitude, and how they appear. We will see the juxtaposition of the economy and public health in ways that deserve documentation as balances are struck differently around the world.

I suggest that depending on location and circumstance, and applicable regulations or guidelines governing permitted activities, some photographs will be identical, and some will vary. Local culture, character, and context will expose variations on global themes.

Here are five suggestions for photographic inquiry during the month of May and June, illustrating life in emergence:

  • How are transitional messages (such as the move from “Stay Home, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus” in England) expressed both in signage and behavior?
  • What do “COVID-safe” businesses look…



Chuck Wolfe

Charles R. Wolfe founded the Seeing Better Cities Group in Seattle and London to improve the conversation around how cities grow and evolve across the world.