Someone combing the hair of a corpse
A scene from inside a funeral home in Queens, New York (Peter van Agtmael / Magnum)

The Surreality of Documenting 2020

“What will resonate in a year or a decade? It’s just a bunch of pictures of people with masks.”

Photographs by Peter van Agtmael

Image above: A scene from inside a funeral home in Queens, New York

In the early months of 2020, the photographer Peter van Agtmael covered a gun-rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, and a Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. Van Agtmael had been working as a photojournalist for 16 years, documenting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and life across the United States. By mid-March, the news was closer to home: He spent the beginning of lockdown recording the world from the window of his Brooklyn apartment.

A woman wearing a mask and a man's chapped hand
Left: Early spring 2020 in McCarren Park, in Brooklyn. Right: The photographer’s chapped hand.

“I am still struggling to figure out exactly how to photograph this thing,” van Agtmael wrote in a diary entry on March 17, 2020, the first time he ventured into pandemic-stricken Manhattan. “What will resonate in a year or a decade? It’s just a bunch of pictures of people with masks.”

A year later, van Agtmael published 2020, a collection of photographs and diary entries from a singular span of American life. Over the course of 13 months (the book ends with Joe Biden’s inauguration), van Agtmael went to more Trump rallies; immersed himself in protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd; and, in Washington, D.C., captured both the revelry that followed Biden’s win and the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

But some of the most affecting shots in the book are quieter, more solitary—eschewing big, newsmaking events for private moments of fear, grief, disorientation, and sometimes even joy. We see van Agtmael’s hand, raw from the constant washing of early spring, and a masked woman surrounded by tree buds that, van Agtmael points out, evoke the coronavirus’s protein spikes. A girl does a backbend in a park while, nearby, a man in a gas mask reads a book; a closed playground, empty despite the seemingly lovely weather, radiates an eerie stillness. “A touch of surrealism, a touch of abstraction, was the best way I could find to reckon with the trauma of the events,” van Agtmael told me.

A girl in a mask doing a backflip
Domino Park, in Brooklyn, May 2020
An empty hotel
A nearly empty hotel in Milwaukee

In May, van Agtmael began working on an assignment at a funeral home in Queens that was then handling five times its usual volume of bodies. He recorded how he watched “the stringy, sticky blood clots getting pumped out of a deceased COVID victim.” In addition to his photographs from the funeral home, the book includes a haunting family portrait that van Agtmael took as he videochatted with his mother and sister while editing photos from the assignment—life and death, side by side.

Bodies at a funeral home
Bodies awaiting embalming at a funeral home in Queens
A man doing a push-up; the photographer editing photos while videochatting with his family
Left: A man stops in the middle of the sidewalk, sets down his bottle of hand sanitizer, and does a few one-armed push-ups before moving on. Right: Van Agtmael videochatting with his mother and sister while he edits photos from the funeral home (the face of the deceased has been obscured to protect their privacy).

He is still, he said, not quite sure how we’ll look back on our pandemic year, what narratives we’ll form. “It doesn’t really feel like the past yet,” van Agtmael said. “Maybe in 20 years I’ll see it completely differently.”

An empty playground
A closed playground in Maryland