Alarm about the rapidly-spreading coronavirus swells with tens of thousands infected, hundreds dead, and more than two dozen countries affected. According to the latest reports, the death toll from the virus in China has risen to 908, surpassing the toll from the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003. More than 40,000 people in the country have been infected.
To capture the fear and isolation that the outbreak has caused, Shanghai-based American photographer nicoco has embarked on a photography series that documents how the illness rendered China’s largest metropolis (population 23.4 million) a ghost city.
“My objective for this series was to capture the feeling of apocalyptic emptiness,” nicoco told Hyperallergic in an email conversation. “Some of the photos may look as if they were captured at strange early morning hours, but as a collection, it seeks to reinforce there were no people, anywhere.”
The photographic series, titled 一个人城市 One Person City, features images of streets, public squares, malls, and metro stations in Shanghai that appear deserted due to fear of infection. The photos were taken between January 26 and February 4 during five different excursions through Shanghai’s People’s Square, West Nanjing Road, Lujiazui/Rainbow Road, Yuyuan Garden, Jingan Temple, and other major locations in the city.
“These are Shanghai’s busiest locations that can compare to Times Square in New York City, Big Ben in London, the Bean in Chicago, or the Washington Monument in DC,” nicoco says. “They are very popular on an average day, and very, very popular during holidays as domestic tourists and residents spend time with their families and check out festive displays, shop, or just meander around.”
The images are in stark contrast with typical panoramas of these locations, especially at a time when the Chinese Lunar Year is being celebrated. “It was personally more jarring for me to see so many empty metro stations and malls,” the Chicago-born photographer wrote. “Chinese New Year is a major commercial holiday, and the shop owners and workers will likely feel the losses for months.”
Shanghai is not under official quarantine, but some public locations, like the People’s Park and Jingan Temple, have been closed. The authorities also extended the national holiday due to the outbreak, instructing non-essential industries (coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, bookstores, bars) to remain closed until February 10. Citizens are generally advised to avoid coming in contact with large groups of people but that will become challenging when they return to work.
“The virus has robbed Chinese people from what should be the happiest time of year,” the photographer wrote. “People are worried about getting sick, their loved ones getting sick, resource shortages, losing their salaries, and, broadly, months of hardship that are likely ahead.”
When asked if Western media is exaggerating the panic, nicoco replied, “The coronavirus is definitely a crisis, but I hope these photos can remind that it’s a human crisis … There’s been a disappointing amount of racism and fear mongering as Chinese people are blamed for the incubation and spread. There is fear and panic, but there is no need to fear and panic East Asian looking people or our cultures. An old man died in Sydney’s Chinatown because people were scared to give him CPR.”
The outbreak is expected to continue to hurt the creative scene and community in Shanghai, according to nicoco. “Whether talking about a movie screening or dance battle, the wariness to be around a crowd will cancel these types of events before they’re even suggested,” she wrote, adding that in the past two weeks she’s been spending significantly more time alone and cooking all her meals at home.
The outbreak led to the shuttering of major art institutions in mainland China and in Hong Kong. In Beijing, the National Art Museum of China, the CAFA Art Museum (CAFAM), the Beijing Palace Museum, and the National Library of China closed their doors indefinitely. So did the Union Art Museum in Wuhan, Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou, and the Great Wall of China. And outside the mainland, Art Basel Hong Kong was finally canceled after a public wrangle between participating galleries and the fair’s organizers.
“The objective of 一个人城市 One Person City is to capture what this fear looks like: its invisible unknown,” she concluded.