Through it all, my students documented everything, creating a remarkable visual time capsule of a world in crisis. Despite the challenges, it cemented my resolve that visual storytelling matters now more than ever. As I prepare for teaching next fall, I realize that I need to take trauma-informed teaching into account.
I teach photojournalism at DePaul University in Chicago. The largest Catholic school in the country, DePaul prides itself on its Vincentian mission to bring higher education to marginalized groups and address social issues through hands-on work in our communities. Roughly 40% of our student body are students of color, and one third are first-generation students. Many of our students work full-time as they complete their coursework, and many live at home in intergenerational households. My spring quarter classes reflected these demographics.
As the virus marched across the globe and cases started popping up in Chicago, DePaul decided to cancel in-person classes and close the dormitories during finals week of winter quarter. Students scrambled to move– back home to the suburbs, to other parts of the country, or other countries altogether. Others remained in their apartments, alone. These vastly different circumstances would deeply shape their experiences during the pandemic.
“Right before the coronavirus hit, I dropped my phone and smashed the front screen. The crack goes right through the front facing camera. The first few weeks were kind of a blur. I did a lot of reading, I started my classes, I figured out how to get unemployment benefits. Now I’m just sort of on autopilot. Recently I discovered that I could hold one of my chickens in a way which makes her fall asleep in my arms. That’s what I’ve been working on most recently.” – Jessica Prough
"COVID-19 has forced me to move in the middle of a pandemic, separated me from almost all my friends in Chicago, caused the newspaper chain I freelance for to go out of business, and exponentially increased my anxiety about my career prospects and health. I work part-time at a grocery store, and do not feel particularly safe at work." – Bianca Cseke
"After Trump claimed corona was a 'Chinese virus,' the outside started to become an uncertain thing for me because I am Chinese. I was born in Southwest China and came to the States when I was 17. Last week, I ordered groceries and a bottle of wine for delivery from Amazon. I asked my boyfriend, who is not Asian, to get the packages for us because I didn’t want to show the delivery person my Chinese passport." – Sarah Cheng
One student had a death in the family, an uncle, which forced her to take on home-schooling for her little brother, as her mother dealt with the aftermath of the death.
The cumulative pressure took a toll on students' mental health. Many reached out to let me know that they were not doing well, and I tried my best to steer them towards help and resources.
In some cases, I worried about their well-being and safety, and there are some images and stories that I did not include here.
It occurred to me as I fielded these messages that students did not have their usual coping mechanisms: friends, nature, sports. Stay-at-home orders and closed lakefronts and parks prevented that kind of relief.
Some did turn to their religious faiths for comfort and strength. Although, they could not worship in large groups, students and their families did their best to maintain their customs at home.
Despite the pressures, students found moments of joy and wonder, and many expressed gratitude and relief for their family and their health.
Although the protests were mostly peaceful, there was some violence and destruction of property. Students witnessed vandalism and theft in their neighborhoods and workplaces. In the Chicago suburb of Cicero, violence broke out between Black and Latinx groups, resulting in the deaths of two men. Two of my students witnessed some of this violence, including the fatal shooting of a man in the street by a group in a passing car.