Viktor Koen’s Greetings from Pandemic Island: A Visual Chronicle of Two Plagues

In a world numbed by the ceaseless surge of pandemic news, award-winning photographer Viktor Koen invites us to pause and reflect through his emotionally charged series, “Greetings from Pandemic Island.” Originally intended as a fleeting collection of postcards, this project swelled into a staggering visual essay that serves as a haunting bridge between the 1918-19 influenza outbreak and our contemporary COVID-19 crisis. Glimpse fragments of history, humanity, and the cavernous disparities that epidemics illuminate, all captured through Koen’s raw and unfiltered lens. As this series reveals, both history and art have a way of stretching time—echoing longer and louder than any seven o’clock applause.

By: Viktor Koen

Initially conceived as a set of postcards, “Greetings from Pandemic Island” evolved into a pictorial bridge between the 1918-19 influenza and COVID-19 pandemic. Spanning a hundred years, the series documents the crises by questioning issues of personal and collective responsibility, humanity, and gross indifference but also highlights new and long-existing layers of racial and socioeconomic disparities catalyzed by the epidemic.  

There was an urgency to capture and express emotions before they evaporated by creating disconnected (at first) images into what eventually became a visual essay. Gradually, this pictorial collection grew to an unexpected number, replacing an early notion that this would be a short series. Making this a case where life imitates art—as the crisis proved long and desperately endless—so became the chain of images reflecting it.

Urgency also dictated that these collages deliver their visual impact simply through combined fragments, distorted proportions, or accidental double exposures. Instead of well-thought-out manipulation and carefully layered effects, photos that demanded my attention during research were embraced as the cornerstone for new ideas or compositions.

Pandemic mementos from one of the most affected areas on the planet are ironic—the disproportionate loss of life on this urban island thoroughly altered the psychosynthesis of its inhabitants in ways we are still unable to grasp. But if not essential, the most one could do for a while was making noise at seven every night. That and trying to somehow put fear and isolation on paper.

By researching and using a wide range of archival photography, turn-of-the-century advertising, public service propaganda, period ephemera, and typography, this visual essay reflects the necessity to focus on simply making something and staying mentally afloat when everything around us is sinking.

“Greetings from Pandemic Island” premiered as a solo exhibition featuring 36 pigment prints in acrylic and a projection room at the Benaki Museum, part of the 2022 International Athens Photo Festival. The series was featured as a solo exhibition photo-cube in New York at the 2023 Photoville Festival.

Viktor Koen is an award-winning artist, curator, and Chair of the BFA Illustration and BFA Comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He holds a BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in Jerusalem and an MFA with honors from SVA. His prints are regularly exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, and are represented in private and institutional collections. Commissioned by national and international clients, his work is consistently featured in books and publications. A TED speaker, Mr. Koen lectures for academic institutions and conferences worldwide while serving, among others, on the Adobe Photoshop Advisory Council and the Photoville board of directors. Distinctions include Communication Arts, Graphis, Folio, American Illustration, and 3×3 “Educator of the Year.”

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Author: Graphis