Trafalgar Square in the Time of COVID

Are We All in This Together?

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Food lines in front of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square (Svema Color 125).
The words pursued Dr. Juvenal Urbino on the drive home: “this death trap of the poor.” It was not a gratuitous description. For the city, his city, stood unchanging on the edge of time (…)

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera”, London: Penguin Books, 2014 edition, at page 22.


March 23rd, 2020, is the day when the first national lockdown was declared in England. In hindsight, I realise that on that day, a new era was ushered in: COVID times. The first anniversary takes place while England is still under the third iteration of a national lockdown. The pandemic has affected everyone, and a high number of people in England, in particularly tragic ways.

Not everyone, however, seems to have access to the means of support to survive in these times of COVID. The idea that “we are all in this together” is just a myth.

In the spring and summer of 2020 and during the colder months running up to 2021, I photographed the food lines that most evenings formed at the foot of the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square. Many people are in these lines because they fell through the cracks of the social security safety net, the one already in existence or the new, COVID specific, created to support the millions that became affected by stopping the economy.

Food lines in front of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Summer 2020 (Svema Color 125).

At the end of the first lockdown, charities began offering hot meals from vans and food stations in Trafalgar Square and sometimes in locations within a few minutes’ walk from the square, on the Strand. The press reports that similar situations were happening in other parts of London and other places in the country. In London, Trafalgar Square often plays an Athenian Agora’s role, a gathering place where many marches, sit-downs, and protests happen. In the photographs here, I show the relatively socially distanced food lines on the square. Before the times of COVID, tourists and others would congregate in this place — many of them would come to see great art at the National Gallery, which houses more than 2000 paintings of the Western European tradition. It seems very striking to see food lines surrounded by the neoclassical architecture of the National Gallery, the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, and the whole of the square, which is a stately style of architecture frequently used to convey ideas such as the glories and the power of empire.

The food lines I photographed usually started under the 4th plinth and run along the esplanade in front of the National Gallery. The square has four plinths for statues. Only 3 of those have a statue permanently placed on them, so the 4th is used for temporary artwork displays. Currently, a piece entitled “An End” sits on it. It is a 9-tonne plastic and metal sculpture of a cherry-topped seemingly melting cream cone, complete with a fly on it, and also a drone, which incidentally adds yet another camera to the many in operation in London. Although it was commissioned before the times of COVID, its presence in the square sums up some of what is going on in some ways. The sculpture came to mark the end of the era that preceded the pandemic and, as beginnings often follow ends, the start of COVID times.

Trafalgar Square, the “An End” sculpture on the 4th. plinth, taken at around lunchtime (Kodak Gold 200).

Photographing on the square and in the presence of those queues for food, I often thought that the crumbling cherry-topped lump of cream could also mean that although food and sustenance is plentiful for many in this society, it is not within the access of all. At the same time, leftovers often go to rot, wasted, unused — as if they had been “placed on a plinth”, out of reach.

Vans from the charities setting up a food station in front of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Summer 2020 (Svema Color 125).

I searched the media for reports on those food lines. It seems they were not deemed newsworthy enough. The two pieces I found spoke of people affected by the closure of catering and other businesses previously employing them and that many had suddenly found themselves homeless. Some of the people in the queues may also be migrants. Without the proper papers, people may not benefit from the mainstream furlough scheme by which state funds are made available to employers to continue paying their staff. Individual situations could be extremely diverse.

Before COVID struck, many were probably in precarious jobs — the kind of employment that hovers perilously around minimum wage or worse. One security person approached me in the summer and mentioned that sometimes some of the queued people are essential workers, but their salaries were too low to support themselves and their families. That comment should not come as a surprise. The reality is that about 60% or more of a minimum-pay-level salary could well go into paying for accommodation in this expensive city.

Setting up food stations, the National Gallery on the left, the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church at the back (Svema Color 125).

No, we are not all in this together, contrary to what some say resurrecting worn-out World War II sound bites or other flag-waving mythology. Society seems not to be succeeding in offering opportunities for integration to all people and, in turn, benefit from their energy and abilities. No doubt, many of the people standing in those lines are very resourceful. It stands to reason that if opportunities are not blocked from being offered, they could contribute a lot to the societal effort that will be needed soon to get the economy started.

My concern is that dangerous things like the anti-immigrant sentiment — fed by some of the popular media might cloud the thinking of many people, including those in authority. This could prevent access to work opportunities, leading to even more situations where people remain without the support they need until the economy is reopened or beyond. Or even putting roadblocks in the way of the intended universal reach of the vaccination drive. There is a very comprehensive report prepared in 2015 for the UNHCR by researchers from the School of Media and Journalism at the University of Cardiff documenting this situation in the UK.

Food Station on the Strand, at the back of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200 exposed at box speed).

The state of affairs I photographed in Trafalgar Square and its surrounding area is a microcosm symptomatic of aspects of the pandemic, which raises questions about the shape of a post-pandemic society. What are the changes that are likely to come, and will they lead to a more inclusive, fairer, more egalitarian society? Or will it be a society that moves from crisis to crisis as if putting out fires, permanently attempting to manage situations of lack, limitation and disadvantage? If we cast our minds to the almost forgotten year 2012 when the Olympics took place in the United Kingdom, the country then seemed to project an image of a far more welcoming and inclusive society, in contrast to the darker days I observe in the here and now.

Van setting up a food station next to the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200 exposed at box speed).
Food Station on the Strand, at the back of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200 exposed at box speed).
Food Station on the Strand, at the back of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, late in the Autumn of 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200 exposed at box speed).
A food station next to the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200, pulled to ISO 800).
Van setting up a food station next to the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200, pulled to ISO 800).

Photographing Trafalgar Square: cameras, lenses, and film.

I photographed with three cameras and three film stocks, all in 35mm.

Vans and food stations organised by charities take turns offering hot meals on different days of the week (Svema Color 125).

I took most of the daytime photographs with an Olympus OM-1 fitted with either a Zuiko 35 mm f/2 or a Zuiko 180 mm f/2.8. I used a Nikon F5 with either a Nikkor G series 50 mm f/1.4 or a Tamron SP 45 mm f/1.8 for most of the photographs I took in the evenings or later in the year when day turns into night earlier and faster film is required even in the early evenings. I also had a small Olympus XA with me.

In natural daylight, I used Kodak Gold 200 at box speed, or Svema Color 125, which I rated at ISO 100. In the evenings, I mostly resorted to Kodak T-Max 3200, rated either at box speed or at ISO 800 on the Olympus XA or when I knew I would use a particular roll during the day as well as in the evening. I did not compensate for any reciprocity failure for the after-dark photographs.

I took most of the images at shutter speeds of 1/30th second or faster. The C-41 process for the colour films was carried out commercially; I developed the black and white rolls in Kodak T-Max. If the roll had been exposed at box speed, I would process it in a 1+4 solution for 12 minutes and 30 seconds at 24°C. For the rolls I exposed at ISO 800, a 1+7 solution was used, timed for 9 minutes and 30 seconds, at 24°C. After the first minute of continuous agitation, I followed an agitation pattern of 10 seconds every minute.

Food Station on the Strand, at the back of the St. Martin -in-the-Fields church, Autumn 2020 (Kodak T-Max 3200 exposed at box speed)

I chose T-Max 3200 for several reasons. Firstly, the high ISO rating facilitated the taking of pictures after dark. Also, I felt that a fast black and white emulsion’s graininess, particularly in 35 mm format, helps separate the situations I photographed from the normal or the expected. I photographed in colour when available light allowed for a handheld exposure. The colour palette of the slightly overexposed Svema film gives a different look to the photographs, as if from another time. (The colour of the one Kodak Gold image in this article was partially desaturated in editing software.) Most importantly, the fact that we have been living under COVID times for a year should not make us grow so accustomed to this era that the extraordinary situation of food lines becomes unremarkable and banal.

On a more general note, I should mention that I am a late arrival to digital. At the end of 2012, I acquired my first pro-level data body, and for about five years, I only used digital equipment. I revisited film in 2017 — a project required that I source a film body. I ended up re-acquiring a camera that had been one of my favourites before I began my digital journey. A few more film cameras followed that purchase, several of which are older than I am, and some of those either do not have interchangeable lenses, or if they do, they do not use the same lens mount that is shared by both my main digital and 35 mm film equipment. As a result of all of this, I became engaged in a never-ending quest for interesting old lenses in charity shops, second-hand sections in camera stores, flea markets and auction sites.

I do not consider myself a nostalgic person. I am very happy that digital equipment does, in fact, exist. My goal at the moment is to embrace all types of equipment, both for my personal photography projects and for client work when appropriate.

References.

 Last consulted, March 25th, 2021.

Art in Trafalgar Square.

The charity that deployed food vans in the area, depicted in some of the photographs.

☞ Mike Berry, Inaki Garcia-Blanco, Kerry Moore, the report Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU: A Content Analysis of Five European Countries Report prepared for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (December 2015) Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Individual chapter authors: Marina Morani (Chapter 10), Bernard Gross (Chapter 11), Tina Askanius and Tobias Linné (Chapter 12) Researchers: Lucy Bennett, Susan Bison, Marina Morani, Lorena Riveiro Rodríguez, Laura Pomarius, Sandra Kaulfuss, Isabel Sundberg. On page 253, the researchers report that in some UK media there was an “aggressive editorialising around threat themes, and in particular how they presented refugee and migrants as a burden on Britain’s welfare state. Both papers also featured humanitarian themes at a much lower level than any other newspapers in our study. Overall, this meant that the Sun and the Daily Mail exhibited both a hostility, and a lack of empathy with refugees and migrants that was unique.”

☞ Sirin Kale, Half-term, hardship and heartbreak: one month in the life of a food-bank manager, in The Guardian, November 10th, 2020.

☞ Ellen Teague, Mission to keep homeless off the streets, in The Tablet, June 26th, 2020.

☞ Jo Siedlecka, Homeless Refreshment Station opens in Trafalgar Square, in ICN Independent Catholic News, published May 8th, 2020 (Updated May 9th, 2020).