Documenting a Pandemic: Focus on preserving experience for future generations

  • Jonathan Blakeslee, the owner of White Heron Tea & Coffee in Portsmouth, participated in a series to document small businesses. Kate & Keith Photography

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/10/2020 6:59:22 PM

Before New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order took effect, Grace Baltic traveled around the Upper Valley capturing photos of families stuck at home because of coronavirus. Baltic, a photographer who lives in West Lebanon, was careful to stay at least six feet away from her subjects to respect social distancing. She felt that taking the pictures was important.

“I wanted to take portraits of people during this time when we’re all so strangely at home, to document the history of this time when we’re all hunkered down together,” Baltic says. Plus, “I always said that every family should have a portrait in front of their current home.”

The photos were part of the Front Step Project, an initiative started by a group of Massachusetts photographers who took photos of families on their front steps, in exchange for a charity donation. Baltic did about 15 sessions before the founders of the Front Step Project requested that it stop, to comply with more strict social distancing.

While the project has been put on hold, Baltic and other creatives around the Granite State are still making an effort to document life during the pandemic. Historians say that will be important when — eventually and inevitably — life returns to normal.

“Twenty, 50 or 100 years from now people will want to know, how did people get food? Did you wear gloves to check the mail? How did you get exercise?” says Molly Dorsey, an associate professor of history at The University of New Hampshire. “Those seem mundane, but the details are going to be easy to forget.”

Baltic is now strictly home with her husband and two children, who are 5 and 2. She’s still making an effort to capture their day-to-day lives, and is encouraging others to do the same.

“It’s never going to be like this again,” she says.

Focus on the everyday

Although Granite Staters are quickly adapting to the new normal — homeschool, virtual meetings and masks in public places — those details of life during the coronavirus pandemic will be fascinating to future generations, and they’ll help people learn from our experiences, says Dorsey.

Documenting your everyday life during this time, with a quick note, a saved email or a snapped photo, could be valuable in the future. Dorsey recommends focusing on the things that are unique to your experience during the pandemic.

“At its core, history is about people,” she says. “Having that personal touch to the story is really key.”

When the pandemic is over, researchers will pour over data, but having small personal stories will draw people in to the experiencing of living through the coronavirus, Dorsey says. So, take a picture of letters that your child is sending to family. Or, save your home-made face mask when you no longer need it.

Bill Dunlap, president of the New Hampshire Historical Society, says it’s hard to decide in the moment what is important. So, err on the side of saving or documenting too much and decide in the future what’s worth keeping.

“A little bit of the pack-rat mentality is ok during times like this,” he says. “The passage of a little bit of time provides perspective and helps in the process of prioritizing what’s the most important.”

Resist the urge to make your documentation of the pandemic picture-perfect, Dorsey says. What will be most compelling in the future is honest accounts: of our joy, frustrations, fears and even boredom.

“It’s important to record the good, bad and ugly,” Dorsey says.

That’s the approach Nicole Woods, a photographer at Nicole Leigh Photography in Raymond, is taking. She’s been taking snapshots of life during social distancing, and posting them to her social media.

“As great as the posed pictures are, they’re not everything,” she says.

Creativity in quarantine

While some photographers turned their lenses to families during the early days of social distancing, Keith Tharp and Kate Harris, photographers on the Seacoast, decided to focus on the small businesses that are being impacted by quarantine.

“We wanted to try to bring awareness to small businesses right now, and that they’re in need of our support,” Tharp says. They took photographs at 12 businesses around the Seacoast, letting the business owners share whatever message they wanted.

Although Tharp and Harris are no longer taking photographs, Tharp is working with local small businesses on promotional videos.

“I’m trying to stay active in creativity,” he says.

That’s also the focus for Masheri Chappelle, chair of The New Hampshire Writers’ Project. The project has been putting together free webinars for writers and sharing writing prompts.

“We can keep that inspirational flame alive to create something positive,” she says.

Documenting, without pressure

Right now the pandemic is overwhelming for many people. Chappelle says that some writers haven’t been writing because “it’s just too hard.” In that case, even a simple social media post about a unique experience — like empty shelves at the grocery store — can be a good way to document what’s happening.

“It doesn’t have to be formal to be valuable,” Dorsey says.

Dunlap adds that people shouldn’t pressure themselves to document what’s happening if they’re not interested in doing so.

“We’re in a battle right now,” he says. “You wouldn’t ask soldiers to pause to write down their experiences in a battle. That applies to a lot of people on the front lines.”

For a welcome distraction, oral historian Jo Radner, who works with New Hampshire Humanities, recommends interviewing older generations of your family. Many of these elders are isolated right now, and recording their stories is a valuable way to build family history, she says. Ask grandparents and others to tell you about a specific place, or to describe a routine day in their childhood. Right now, Radner says, we all have time to listen to those stories that we normally don’t make time for.

“It’s very important to take advantage of that,” Radner says.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit 

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