For the last two months, Jeongmin “JM” Cho ’21 has documented his experience living on campus during the coronavirus pandemic to over 650 followers on the anonymous Instagram account @lonelycovidtiger. With the school year wrapping up, Cho agreed to speak with The Daily Princetonian — opening up about documenting on-campus life amid COVID-19, the nature of anonymous photography, and his hopes for the future.
The Daily Princetonian: Let’s begin by talking about your decision to start the account. What inspired you to do this?
Jeongmin Cho ’21: After this whole evacuation thing happened way back in March, I remember not really knowing what to do on those first few days because all the responsibilities I had as a student had really disappeared overnight. Classes were postponed, all my friends had moved out, and I wasn't with my family. I just remember feeling a bit lost.
At the same time, my friends were really curious about what it was like still being on campus and how the dining halls were different and whatnot. That's when I thought it would be really interesting to capture some of these moments living on campus in photos, and luckily I had a camera with me. It was in that realization that people were curious, coupled with the fact that this photography project gave me a much-needed sense of purpose at the time, that got me started with this account.
DP: Have you given any thought to what the aim of this is? You said you started initially because your friends were kind of curious about what it’s like to stay on campus, but you've posted a lot, nearly 140 times at this point. Have you given thought to the further “why” behind that?
JC: That’s a good question and definitely something I probably should have given more thought to. For me, I really just wanted to capture the campus and what those who were remaining here were doing in these peculiar times. I tried my best to pay attention to what's going on rather than writing my own story with some aim.
For instance, in March when it was cold and rainy, and no one was outside, I just walked around capturing things like trash bins. But when the weather cleared out, I got to see how people were spending time outdoors. Whether it’s working out, playing the banjo, or cutting your own hair, I learned that people found ways to do interesting things, despite these times. I think that was what was really interesting for me to capture. I don’t think I have some aim or overarching objective that I set out to accomplish. It was just a photo essay.
DP: We’ve talked a little bit about what you’ve been taking away from from your posts. But you have around 650 Instagram followers. What do you hope the people who follow you on Instagram take away from what you’re putting online?
JC: I think it ties back to that quote that I put there as my bio that says, “Storms make trees grow deeper roots.” The things we’re doing, like social distancing, are tough things to do. But they’re being done because it’s needed. In the near future, when things go back to normal, I hope that people can look back on these times, to things like this photography project, and remind themselves of the tough times we went through and how we made it out.
DP: So your hope is that the account is archival in a sense?
JC: Yeah, in a sense. It’s meant to document, it’s not meant to send a message or anything. Archival is a good word.
DP: It’s interesting that you mentioned the account isn’t meant to send a message because I noticed, while scrolling through your stuff, that there aren’t any captions. Was that a conscious choice?
JC: Yeah, I think it ties back to the reason I didn’t put my name up there. I don’t put captions because I wanted the photos and the situation to be appreciated on their own rather than for whoever was behind the camera or what that person had to say.
I think it’s up to the viewer to interpret these as opposed to me trying to write some story. Personally, I think it added another layer of fun for myself to see how people interact and take notice of different parts of this photography project that I didn’t even realize.
DP: What didn’t you realize?
JC: One thing that was surprising was how many people messaged me on the account, saying that they’re really grateful that I’m uploading these photos, and that it makes them nostalgic. For me, as someone who just wanted to document things, it was really meaningful to know that something that I did was impacting someone to that emotional extent.
Beyond that, they were sending these photos around to their own social circles of people that I’ve never interacted with and who I don’t know, other than the fact that we go to the same school. So in those ways, I think it was really interesting for me to see how people make meaning out of the photos.
DP: I think part of the lore of this account is that the anonymity of the poster sort of detaches the individual from it. I’m wondering if you could talk to me about your decision to do this anonymously and why you now feel comfortable with the ‘Prince’ publishing who you are. Why were you anonymous in the first place and why do you feel comfortable changing that now?
JC: In the beginning I really wanted the photos to stand on their own. I was hoping people could just appreciate them for what they are instead of for the person who was taking the photos — that was the main objective behind staying anonymous. Now the year’s wrapping up, and I’ve basically wrapped up in terms of this project. This is not meant to just keep going, it’s a project that is specific to this time, so I was just going to document until the school year ends.
It was interesting to stay anonymous and I don't have a problem staying there, but I think it’ll also be interesting to see how people view my work differently or act differently if they learn that I may have had these intentions or personal thoughts behind it. Maybe that could add another layer of interpretation. I just think it’ll be interesting.
DP: In that spirit, is there any message you'd like to convey to the people who are reading this? You have over 650 followers and I’m sure thousands more have seen your pictures. Do you have any message for those people?
JC: I mean, really, there’s no message. If anything, as I said earlier, I just hope that these photos can be something to look back on and that we can stay optimistic that things will be better soon. I hope we will be looking back and be able to appreciate the things that we may have otherwise taken for granted — simple things like being able to be with one another, hug your friends, and express appreciation.
DP: You mentioned things started out dreary in March and now in May things have kind of picked up. Do you feel like your artistic sensibility has developed over time?
JC: Oh yeah. This is an embarrassing truth, but 90 percent of the photos were just taken with autofocus and auto ISO, and those who've taken a photography class will probably see I don't really know what I'm doing. Since then I've been taking photos and googling how to take good photos, and I think when I look back I realized the mood of the photos are very reflective of how the times have been changing on campus.
I think a lot of the earlier photos reflect the March sentiments when this all had just happened, and now, as the weather has cleared up and summer is approaching, the brighter color scheme is reflective. I didn’t notice until after I had been posting that my color schemes have gotten brighter. I think it is interesting for me to just realize the progression and change over time. My photo style has developed to match the atmosphere of the campus.
DP: Could you tell me about your username? Why @lonelycovidtiger — why did you choose the word lonely? How much thought did you give to your name and what that conveys?
JC: This account was really primarily made for the school community during these particular times, hence COVID Tiger, but I think lonely was just the right word to capture my own sentiment at the time of making this account. I don't know if it was really just my own sentiments at this time or if it felt relatable to those in social distancing times, but I didn’t think long and hard about this.
To be fully open and honest, it was just the right word to capture my own emotions and sentiments and how I felt the campus reflected that. Without people, I think the campus itself felt a bit empty and lonely, so I think that's how it got started.