At the beginning of March, I was on assignment in the South Pacific. It was a different world and a world away from what we’re witnessing now. I felt lucky to get home. I originally got into photography to travel, the explorer gene is strong, as I suspect it may be in you.
Coronavirus has confined and compromised our practice, our passion. Photographers are limited to what is immediately accessible. A fair amount of my time as a freelancer is sat alone trying to think of ideas for projects and things to do, I may have an advantage. It’s time to put away the passport and journey to inner space, to the centre of our lives.
During this crisis, journalists have been listed by the government as a key public service. For now, I’ve been fortunate enough to go about my business unhindered. I used to call the zoom lens, ‘the ageing snappers walking stick,’ I thought it was lazy to use and at times, disrespectful. In this period of social distancing, I’m grateful to have one, well two actually; the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Zoom Lens and the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12‑40mm F2.8 PRO. They’ve allowed me to continue to do my job, a welcome and now permanent addition to the kit bag.
I’ve photographed people shopping in the supermarket wearing masks, queuing for the supermarket wearing masks, driving, cycling and sightseeing wearing masks. I’ve snapped hundreds of signs in the window of businesses explaining why they had to close and wishing their customers well. I’ve walked the deserted streets, ridden empty escalators and trains. It’s become bleak and repetitive. If you haven’t been able to get out, you’re not missing too much. However, it’s crucial to document this chapter of our history in some way. Perhaps the enduring visual archive of this extraordinary time will come from the projects born by your experience, within your community, family and home.
William Eggleston, widely regarded as one of the most outstanding colour photographers of all time, in his eponymous book, photographed the inside of an oven in 1970, a freezer in 1980 and a used dinner plate, 1989. He photographed under the bed, condiments on the table, cutlery drying on a rack, a bare lightbulb hanging from a deep red ceiling and a white fan fixed to a bright white roof. A coat hung on the wall, a half deflated red balloon, a green tiled shower and a shadow across a multi coloured bed. The photographs are brave and brilliant, mundane and mesmerising.
Some great photographers have produced great projects at home. Perhaps it’s time to start or continue yours. Over a thirty-year period, Matthew Finn took photographs of his mother at her home in Leeds. Photography and the act of being photographed can be bonding and create a powerful account of a life. His mother (and even long-absent father) is ever-present in the pictures, even when there’s no one present in them – a vase of flowers on the table, shaft of sunlight on the sofa. The black and white photographs are quiet and considered. In contrast, Richard Billingham’s photographs in his book, Ray’s a Laugh, are chaotic, colourful and brash. There are bloody noses, clenched fists and a tossed cat. They are scenes only Billingham could have captured – the result a real, intense and unique family album. In Nick Waplington’s book, Living Room, he intimately documented two working-class families. As an accomplice, he introduces us to their lives and invites the viewer to eat with them on the kitchen floor. Turning the pages you can smell the used diapers, hear the tears and laughter of his temporary companions. Martin Parr’s book, Signs of the Times, is more about the range of personal choice and taste in the home – a comedy of manners, a peek beyond the blinds and frills of the net curtain. Jasper White has photographed the men’s side of the bed and men’s sheds. In 1998, Alex Harris created a compelling series of photographs of his eight-year-old sone playing Nintendo Game Boy. Between 2012-14, Maurice Evanes photographed his brother leaving the house. For her book, My Favourite Colour Was Yellow, Kirsty Mackay set out over a five year period to photograph girls with their pink possessions as a way to understand how this one colour has become so dominant – many of the images are portraits of girls in their bedrooms. Then there’s Siân Davey, the early work of Sally Mann – I could go on.
This experience will change us all. Life has been reset. Isolation can do strange and wonderful things. I’ve started using a tea cup and saucer. I’ve started drinking tea. I’ve given up using conditioner and learnt how to cut my own hair. I wear my socks a little longer and am trying to eat a little less. I’m getting to know the needs of my neighbours. When we’re back in the pubs and parks, packed on tube trains cursing the proximity of strangers, we will reflect: how did I behave, what did I contribute?
I’m looking forward to the challenge of confinement. For the next few months the teapot will be my muse, the family my models, the Olympus camera a forensic friend. I may never go outside again. Whatever your photographic interest and style, this is a unique opportunity. Get creative with mirrors and reflections, follow light and shadow around the house, point your camera out of the window. Observe what you would ordinarily overlook. We don’t always have to hunt far for inspiration, it can be smiling directly back at us. Your Olympus needs YOU.