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IAP A5: background, research and process

Background

The announcement on Friday 20 March of lockdown measures to be implemented as of Monday 23 March brought a sudden and most remarkable change to every aspect of daily life. It’s already difficult now to appreciate quite how dramatic the change was, and how scrupulously everyone, almost without exception, followed the guidelines in the weeks that followed. Public spaces were deserted, traffic was virtually non-existent and the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be sticking to the guidelines of emerging from their homes only for “essential” reasons and the permitted hour of daily exercise.

Here in Brighton, police patrolled the beaches, moving anyone on who dared to sit or lie down. I was nervous about taking my camera out on my daily walks in case I was challenged about the “non-essential” nature of my activity, so I often used my phone camera instead. I was acutely aware that these were extraordinary times, and aimed to record images falling into two broad categories: those that captured sights that were specific to the experience of lockdown (signs of the time), and those that reflected the sense of isolation that lockdown brought to many, myself included, and/or were symbolic of the mood of foreboding that permeated the fabric of life at the time.

Research

For this project I didn’t do any specific research because I wanted the series to be an attempt to tap as directly as possible into my own responses to this once-in-a-lifetime situation and didn’t want those responses to be mediated by a conscious or unconscious emulation of other people’s work. I wanted it to be a visceral response to the experience of lockdown, and focused on looking around me for signs and symbols that tapped into what I was experiencing at a gut level.

Process

I began the project on 30 March and shot more than 750 images for it over the next month and a half, during which time there was a slow rise in the amount of activity in public spaces and a gradual increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, but both remained well below normal levels for the time of year. Each day I went through all the images I’d shot that day, shortlisting and processing those that I deemed to be suitable candidates for potential inclusion in the final edit. I felt that it was important to do this as I went along, so that the selected images would be a running commentary of my impressions and experiences at the time, and not a retrospective view compiled later.

From these shortlisted images I also made an ever-changing “final edit”, and as this progressed it became clear to me that I was more interested in the images that spoke to my subjective experience of lockdown than those that captured the signs of the time, which by then were becoming ubiquitous and increasingly less interesting as a result. Almost certainly there will come a time when they’ll seem more interesting again, when the coronavirus experience is a distant memory (if indeed that ever transpires), but for now I have mothballed nearly all of that category.

On Thursday 7 May, with a sunny bank holiday weekend ahead, Boris Johnson intimated that lockdown restrictions would be made less onerous as of the following week. This led to an immediate return to normal levels of activity in public spaces and on the roads, at least here in Brighton. Apart from the residual signage and a few people wearing masks, there was no real indication that lockdown had ever taken place. I continued to make photos for this series over the next week, but on 14 May I decided that the lockdown experience I was aiming to record had unequivocally ended, and my final image was taken that day.

IAP A5: reflection before tutor feedback

This project began as an attempt to record the look and feel of the lockdown period, and gradually became more of a personal expression of the isolation and dislocation that I experienced during those first 7 weeks when the world seemed to stop in its tracks. Does it succeed in communicating something of those feelings, the strangeness of that time? I find it hard to know. Things that seemed strange at first feel normal now. Perhaps I’ll only be able to tell much later when I look back on the images from a distance.

I shot a huge quantity of images for this project – more than 750 – and did not have a prior feel for the kind of images I was looking for. Basically I used my camera and phone to examine and explore the new situation I found myself in, and this resulted in a wide range of different image styles and subjects. As I explained in an earlier post, I processed each day’s images as I went along, and shifted the ones that resonated most into a running but ever-changing shortlist.

At first there was an emphasis on the visible outward signs of pandemic – the empty public spaces, the behavioural prompts that suddenly appeared everywhere, queues at supermarkets, police patrolling the beaches – but these quickly became very familiar and lost their potency as signifiers of strangeness. Nevertheless I felt I wanted to retain one or two of these kinds of image to anchor the series in the pandemic event.

The final edit starts with a graffiti work that appeared within days of lockdown and was almost immediately painted over by another artist. The buildings in the left background are part of the Royal Sussex County Hospital, currently undergoing extensive redevelopment. For me this image captures the dissonance between the surreal, almost game-like experience of the early days of lockdown and the grim reality that was already coming into play.

The second image mirrors the graffiti hoarding and is the one “sign of the time” that I decided to retain. Images 3 and 4 show the oddly empty public spaces along the seafront area, the heavy clouds and bird respectively bringing a sense of foreboding into these usually bustling locations.

Images 5 and 6 are intended to convey the sense of confinement that soon became the dominant mood of the early lockdown weeks, while 7 and 8 illustrate the way we learned to become more self-sufficient – in these cases careful meal-planning and building up a stock of meals in the freezer in case of incapacity, and the use of lolly sticks to make a splint for a broken toe.

Images 9 and 10 return to the theme of confinement and isolation, expressed in the physical barriers (window/fire escape) to the outside world. The window/barrier metaphor is repeated in image 11, while its mirror image 12 suggests a lifting of the gloom as it becomes clear that the most intense period of lockdown is giving way to a less onerous version. The final pair of images are perhaps overly metaphorical, showing my foot stepping out and an empty Corona bottle in a waste bin.

I’ve enjoyed becoming more familiar with my Panasonic Lumix GX-9 during this period. Although I’ve had it for a year, it’s taken me a while to feel completely comfortable with it as all my previous cameras have been Canons, but I now feel I know my way around it and can get it to do what I want it to do. The images I took for this project on my phone were of course much smaller and less technically intentional, which is probably why I’ve only included two phone images in the final edit.

I feel that this series demands a minimalistic no-frills presentation to reflect the sparseness that has been seen across visual media during this time as we’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from meetings to yoga classes to news broadcasts and tv programmes via Zoom from makeshift studios. I would therefore intend to present it for assessment as straightforward A3 prints, in pairs/diptychs as above. Given that assessment is now entirely digital in format, I’m unsure as yet whether this will entail making the prints and presenting photos of the prints, or simply presenting them directly as digital “prints”, or some other solution (a virtual gallery, perhaps). I will leave that decision until after I’ve received tutor feedback.

IAP A5: reflection after tutor feedback

Once again my tutor’s feedback was immensely helpful, and gave me the sense of direction I had struggled so hard to find in this project. My self-appointed aim throughout the work had been to capture what the experience of the covid-19 lockdown period looked and felt like, and I now see that this was impossibly broad in scope and I needed to define my intentions far more tightly. As my tutor pointed out, my final edit included two distinct narrative strands – one located in the public space and the other in the personal – and there was no sense of connection or consistency between the two. He recommended that I focus solely on the personal, selecting images that show my personal experience of lockdown and/or externalise the way I experienced it internally.

With this new, more specific brief in hand I went back to the full set of 750 original images and re-edited from scratch, a task that was infinitely easier now that my intended output was clearly defined. The outcome is clearly a significant improvement on my original submission and says much more about the practical and emotional experience of lockdown than the original edit.

My original self-appointed aim of trying to find a way to describe and communicate the strange world of lockdown was also seriously flawed in other respects. In the first place, what seemed at first to be extremely odd quickly became the new normal as images of scenes that would hitherto have been extraordinary became ubiquitous in every channel of communication.

I had also hoped to use lockdown as a route to explore my own innate creative potential, and described in my earlier posts on this assignment how that aim led me to avoid actively looking at how others were portraying the experience and consequently meant that I claimed not to have done any research. In fact the only way it would have been possible to avoid seeing other people’s responses to lockdown would have been to avoid all forms of media; and like many people I actually did the opposite and exposed myself to a continuous stream of interpretations and expressions of the experience emanating from news and social media as well as specific photography-related sources. These included Annie Liebovitz’s Still Life, Alice Zoo’s Spring, Viktoria Sorochinski’s lockdown self-portraits, George Selley’s lockdown landscapes, Dougie Wallace’s images of supermarket shoppers, Michelle Sank’s portraits of people taking their lockdown exercise, and Nadav Kander’s response to isolation.

Ultimately, however, I was unable to see the wood for the trees until my tutor guided me towards making the assignment a personal expression of my own internal experience of lockdown rather than trying to describe the world at large. This is a valuable lesson which not only finally made it possible for me to make sense of the work I did for this assignment but I feel will also serve me well for approaching future projects.

IAP A5: summary for assessment

Background

The announcement on Friday 20 March of lockdown measures to be implemented as of Monday 23 March brought a sudden and most remarkable change to every aspect of daily life. It’s already difficult now to appreciate quite how dramatic the change was, and how scrupulously everyone, almost without exception, followed the guidelines in the weeks that followed. Public spaces were deserted, traffic was virtually non-existent and the overwhelming majority of people seemed to be sticking to the guidelines of emerging from their homes only for “essential” reasons and the permitted hour of daily exercise.

Here in Brighton, police patrolled the beaches, moving anyone on who dared to sit or lie down. I was nervous about taking my camera out on my daily walks in case I was challenged about the “non-essential” nature of my activity, so I often used my phone camera instead. I was acutely aware that these were extraordinary times, and aimed to record images falling into two broad categories: those that captured sights that were specific to the experience of lockdown (signs of the time), and those that reflected the sense of isolation that lockdown brought to many, myself included, and/or were symbolic of the mood of foreboding that permeated the fabric of life at the time.

Research

I wanted the series to tap as directly as possible into my own responses to this once-in-a-lifetime situation and didn’t want those responses to be mediated by conscious or unconscious emulation of other people’s work. But the only way it would have been possible to avoid seeing other people’s responses would have been to avoid all forms of media, and like many people I actually did the opposite and exposed myself to a continuous stream of interpretations and expressions of the experience emanating from news and social media as well as specific photography-related sources. These included Annie Liebovitz’s Still Life, Alice Zoo’s Spring, Viktoria Sorochinski’s lockdown self-portraits, George Selley’s lockdown landscapes, Dougie Wallace’s images of supermarket shoppers, Michelle Sank’s portraits of people taking their lockdown exercise, and Nadav Kander’s response to isolation.

Process

I began the project on 30 March and shot more than 750 images over the next month and a half, during which time there was a slow rise in the amount of activity in public spaces and a gradual increase in the amount of traffic on the roads, but both remained well below normal levels for the time of year. Each day I went through all the images I’d shot that day, shortlisting and processing those I deemed to be suitable candidates for potential inclusion in the final edit. I felt it was important to do this as I went along, so that the selected images would be a running commentary of my impressions and experiences at the time, and not a retrospective view compiled later.

On Thursday 7 May, with a sunny bank holiday weekend ahead, Boris Johnson intimated that lockdown restrictions would be made less onerous as of the following week. This led to an immediate return to normal levels of activity in public spaces and on the roads, at least here in Brighton. Apart from the residual signage and a few people wearing masks, there was no real indication that lockdown had ever taken place. I continued to make photos for this series over the next week, but on 14 May I decided that the lockdown experience I was aiming to record was over, and my final image was taken that day.

As the project had progressed it had gradually become clear to me that I was more interested in the images that spoke to my subjective experience of lockdown than those that captured the signs of the time in the public arena, which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous and consequently less interesting. Despite this, the 14 images I submitted to my tutor for feedback were divided 50:50 between personal and public depictions. He highlighted the fact that my final edit included two distinct narrative strands – one located in the public space and the other in the personal – and that there was no sense of connection or consistency between the two. He recommended that I focus solely on the personal, concentrating on images that show my personal experience of lockdown and/or externalise the way I experienced it internally.

This gave me the clear sense of direction I had struggled so hard to find, and I now re-edited from scratch, a task that was infinitely easier now that my intended output was precisely defined. The outcome is clearly a significant improvement on my original submission and says much more about the practical and emotional experience of lockdown than the original edit.

Presentation

I feel that this series demands a minimalistic no-frills presentation to reflect the sparseness that has been seen across visual media during this time as we’ve become accustomed to seeing everything from meetings to yoga classes to news broadcasts and tv programmes via Zoom from makeshift studios. It therefore seems appropriate to present the series as digital images, and in a studio setting I would make these as large as possible, perhaps even life-size.