Lockdown London - a photographers thoughts
How does this second lockdown compare to the first?
On the 23rd of March 2020 the lockdown plunged the UK into the unknown with immediate effect.
As a London based photographer, the pandemic created the perfect storm to get me out documenting street life again. It was familiar territory as my route into the industry had been through street photography.
All my freelance jobs had evaporated overnight, but my National Union of Journalists (NUJ) membership ensured me unrestricted movement to undertake photography work - I had nothing but free time to explore. Plus, I could travel safely around on my scooter without risking public transport.
I kept an open mind about how I wanted the images to turn out. I only knew that I wanted to avoid clichéd images showcasing the worst aspects of human behaviours - flouting lockdown rules or hoarding toilet paper. I wanted to do what street photography does best - capture everyday life in the spaces we all share. To show what everyday life looked life against the backdrop of a pandemic.
portrait of a street cleaner in China Town. credit: George Torode
Not since the Blitz had we had such restrictions to our lives in London. These were unprecedented times and although it would be a challenge, all that the lockdown demanded of us was to stay home. This would be the war effort of our times and we were getting off lightly - there would be no sheltering from bombs or enlisting to fight in a war far from home.
The front lines were now the ICUs and the soldiers were the NHS staff and key-workers.
We were united, every Thursday we applauded them from our doorsteps. We contacted the “vulnerable” people we knew as the notion of care became central to our existence.
clapping for carers in tower hamlets. credit: George Torode
The idea that the human spirit would prevail energised me.
In spite of being steeped in very real tragedies it felt that this could be the shove that humanity needed to improve itself. Would this be the catalyst to create a brighter future on the other side of Covid-19?
On the morning of the 24th March I stepped out tentatively into the new world. An eerie silence hung in the air and it was a while before I saw anyone at all, on the road or on foot. Apprehensive, I clasped my camera and NUJ card.
There was no telling what this new world would look like and how the rules would be enforced. Could a military vehicle pull up and demand to see my papers? This may sound fanciful now but nothing was certain at the time. It was edgy and exciting.
Though the UK has no laws prohibiting taking photos in public spaces, people themselves have mixed responses to finding themselves on the subject side of the lens. With a bit of communication, either before (if possible) or after taking the photograph, suspicion could be quickly transformed into interest. Overwhelmingly this proved to be the case, and I started to take comfort in the playful and frank exchanges with my subjects.
Living in London it’s easy to put up invisible barriers – it’s easy to plug your ears with music and hurtle about, not making eye contact. This doesn't work if you want to witness, or capture, a moment like this one. I had to be open and engaged, and the people I met almost always reciprocated this energy. Perhaps the uncertainty, isolation and stress had people appreciating human interaction a little more than usual. My subjects - mostly key workers - were proud of their contributions and pleased to be documented.
A routine started to develop.
I slept early each night, my alarm set to ring at 5.30am. I'd set out with my camera - shoots would last 2-3 hours; there was a lot of walking and no sitting down or stopping for fear of contracting the Covid.
petticoat lane. credit: George Torode
I'd be amped up and focused, and then by 10am exhausted and ready to head home for coffee on a blessedly sunny patio. Soon I had covered my local area so started to venture to other locations.
Overnight, the West End streets I had known so well had gone from full capacity to full-on desolation. Familiar shopping streets became unrecognisable now that they were devoid of people and had the shutters down.
Living on the edge of the City I was drawn to the glass and chrome valleys of the square mile, now resembling mausoleums for capitalism on hold.
Gone were the armies of executives: now this concrete desert was only home to occasional street cleaners and construction workers. I chose to revisit places integral to my childhood - experiencing the familiar as the unfamiliar like never before. I sped easily between locations on roads that were empty except for emergency vehicles and delivery drivers.
a lone ambulance responds to an emergency call on an otherwise empty A12 in Stratford. credit: George Torode
A glorious Spring came into bloom, unexpectedly exposing social divisions. The experiences of being locked-down in a flat versus somewhere with a garden were poles apart.
Especially when children were added to the mix; gardens often meant the difference between real struggle and a long holiday. There were of course a myriad of other lockdown pressures on all households but access to an outside space suddenly became the collateral that divided the city.
Londoners adapted to this problem where they could, setting up outside spaces in unconventional places. Rooftops, windows and front doors became crucial. Doorstep socialising became commonplace in a quiet revolution which utilized spaces previously overlooked and unused. Sunny windowsills took on new significance and the uncertain hands of family members administered questionable haircuts.
family grooming in Hackney. credit: George Torode
To balance the focus of the work I visited Belgravia one morning – one of the most expensive areas to live in the capital.
As with the other areas covered I had expected to observe the usual flow of early morning joggers and dog walkers but was surprised to find the streets deserted and the lights of mansion blocks remaining entirely unlit.
Could the Belgravia residents have evacuated their London abodes to live out the lockdown in the luxury of their country homes? And if true (although unfair) could I blame them?
Despite the fact that London was initially the epicentre of the virus, by May we were becoming more accustomed living with the restrictions. Shock had given way to a stoic resignation.
Lockdown rules meant that schools, retail and hospitality were all closed but there was a much appreciated easing on meeting friends and family in outdoor spaces. The daily death toll from Covid, though still high, was less than half what it had been at its peak in early April.
Sensing this change, I was planning to complete my project to coincide with the very last clap for carers on the 28th of May. However, my plans changed a few days earlier when the government’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, attempted to justify driving across the country with his family, in the belief that they might have been infected with the virus.
This ‘architect of lockdown’ appeared to be unrepentant about breaking the rules that most people had been diligently observing.
After this something snapped; the delicate contract between the government and the public was broken and resentment replaced civic pride and I decided to end my photography project at that point instead.
I had felt optimistic about the effects of the lockdown on controlling the virus and also its knock-on effect on the environment, particularly air quality, which was now exquisitely clean without the usual traffic pollution.
Now I started to wonder whether the NHS workers would get the recognition that they deserved through better pay?
Would there be a strategy for securing social care in the future?
After we defeat the virus would society be more open to the drastic changes that would be needed to fix the climate crisis too?
Nine months later and we are in lockdown again. The optimism I felt at the start of the 1st lockdown is still there but it has been drained of any idealism. Like an injured runner in sight of the finishing post, I believe we will finish the race.
What we have learnt or the extent of our injuries, I’m not so sure of.
Click the image below to view a small selection of the Lockdown London spring 2020 photo series. View the full project here
About the author: London born George Torode is a social documentary and portrait photographer who has been operating commercially for the past 15 years. He focuses primarily on people in their environments, studying their interactions.
View George's full lockdown photography series here
A more extensive collection can be seen on George's IG account
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