Mined from the Peter J. Cohen Collection gift of nearly 1,000 anonymous snapshot photographs, this exhibition considers our everyday relationship to “viral” photography. In what ways do we mediate, understand, and narrate our lives through photographs? Why do certain types of images become socially infectious?

The title of this exhibition, Going Viral: Photography, Performance, and the Everyday, was generated over a year before the outbreak of COVID-19, a global public health crisis that has quickly altered all of our lives. I intended the title to be provocative—a comparison of our contemporary relationship to photography with that of the analog age.

Now that we are living in a world turned upside down by an actual pandemic, we must re-examine the language that we use to describe activity in the digital world. Why do we make reference to infectious pathogenic agents to describe the rapid reproduction of information on the Internet?

The original Latin meaning of the word “virus” referred to “poisonous secretions,” such as pus, juice, or discharge emitted from the body. This image evokes how we understand our online lives: videos, images, and text flow;  songs stream; and news reports surge. The metaphor also reflects anxieties about digital media. Many see certain effects of the Internet—such as digital addiction, “fake news,” and selfies—as toxic and contagious.

There is nothing new about the fear of media proliferating in the hands of the masses. At the dawn of amateur photography in the late-nineteenth century, critics warned of a “universal snapping psychosis.” The craze for candid cameras spawned innumerable tropes that people found irresistible to repeat. These uncanny patterns of performance, ritual, and gesture are the premise of the exhibition, Going Viral.

Far from corrupting, these viral snapshots continue to resonate, to tug at emotions, and to spark the imagination—just as the communities fostered by virtual platforms and social media are bringing many of us comfort and inspiration at this time of uncertainty. The phrase “going viral,” then, is a conundrum. It contains conflicting associations of contagion and fear on the one hand, and connection and creation on the other. My hope is that this online exhibition can serve the latter purpose.

Be well, stay safe, and may you all be snap happy,

Carrie Cushman
March 2020

Curated by Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber '66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, the exhibition is supported with funds given through the generosity of Linda Wyatt Gruber (Class of 1966) and Wellesley College Friends of Art at the Davis.