Face masks in the wild: a photographic collection

Last April, my co-authored book The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis was published (written with Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark and Ash Watson when we were all part of the Vitalities Lab that I lead at UNSW Sydney). We feature several images of face masks in the books: a few of which we had taken ourselves.

As the title of the book suggests, and as part of my interest in COVID cultures and everyday life, I am quite fascinated about how face masks have become part of more-than-human worlds across the globe since the advent of the COVID-19 crisis. I’ve continued to notice how face masks have become ‘wilded’ through being thoughtlessly discarded (or sometimes deliberately placed) in public places and on other objects, assembling with other dimensions of things, place and space.

Here’s a catalogue of some of these images I’ve taken so far. These masks are in varying states of grubbiness/decay, which for me speaks of their pervasiveness into the environment as waste or garbage. They are a far cry from the fresh, clean ‘hygienic’ surgical or N95 masks we can buy, or the often new pretty or colourful handcrafted fabric masks that can be found on Etsy. I hate seeing them littering the ground and despoiling gardens, parks or bushland. But there’s also something strangely appealing or aesthetically pleasing about some of these still lifes: in the particular combination of mask, other things, colour, shape, texture and the play of light.

None of these assemblages have been arranged by me – they were documented as I found them, walking around as part of my everyday routines. I see these arrangements as ‘found still lifes’ that speak to the gradual seeping into our worlds of the COVID face mask, which has taken on particular liveliness and thing-power over the past two years. For me, their ever-growing presence in public spaces is a synecdoche of the ways that COVID has permeated our lives, just as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has entered people’s bodies.

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