The restrictions on social gatherings, including the social distancing rule to keep two meters apart and limits of capacity in restaurants and bars, came to an end in England on 19 July 2021 — “Freedom Day.” As the pandemic itself did not come to an end, the authorities have continued asking the public to follow some basic rules such as regular handwashing, wearing a mask where recommended, etc. The difference is, however, that most of the current rules are only advisory. There is a lot of mixed messaging.
I decided to observe the impact of the shift from government enforceable rules to private precautions in the microcosm of one of the nodes of activity in Central London, Oxford Circus on Sunday 1st. August 2021, in the late morning. The area is one of the main shopping districts of the city.
Over the many months of the pandemic, many in authority thought that a lot of the measures that were taken in matters of health and safety were too interventionist. The burden of responsibility has shifted now. This seems to me reminiscent of a game of musical chairs, only one with the fun removed from it.
From government rules to personal responsibility.
I dealt with the photographs as if they were a pack of cards, which I could shuffle, re-shuffle, and lay out in different ways. I used the idea of a game of musical chairs and set out the photographs as if I were to populate a short storyboard.
A photograph of fading or peeling away signage, for example, precedes a few candid images of people emerging from the underground station, or standing or walking about. Then another image of no longer needed signage is added to the series, and I follow it with a few more candid photographs. The rhythm in the series is given by the rules and restrictions moving from the outside world of the public sphere (represented by the gradually fading signage) to the individual responsibility of each person, and this, of course, is accepted — or not — by each individual in different ways.
Most people I observed in the crowd seemed to be more aware of their personal space and the space around them than I remember from pre-COVID times. Several people continue to wear face masks and there is a requirement to do so on public transport. But there seems to be a degree of confusion about how to behave and what degree of protection is needed. Or wanted.
I also noticed that a lot of the signage in Central London was removed very quickly. In order to photograph remnants of signage I went to an area away from the city centre. The ones I photographed for this article are from a bus stop in the Stamford Hill area, North London.
Over and above these considerations, the photographs also show that crowds have re-appeared, public transport gets very busy at times, and that one can wish for even more space that could be made available to the public.
The COVID crisis has underlined the great importance of open space for public use in a densely populated city such as London.
The Diana camera.
I photographed with a Diana camera that takes Fujifilm Instax Square film. I found it unexpectedly controllable with zone focusing, three possible apertures and its single shutter speed. It is nimble in operation, despite it being a “toy camera”.
To minimise the “lo-fi” nature of all of this I fitted the camera with a Lomography 75 mm lens, which is an optical glass triplet with AR coating. The angle of view of this normal lens allowed me to emphasise the sense of myself being in the reality I was photographing.
The proximity between people, if shown in the photographs, is real, and therefore not an artifice that could have resulted from, for example, the optical compression created by a telephoto lens. The images from the Diana camera are dream-like, they are far from being over-sharp and at times they show more or less heavy vignetting depending on the aperture selected. I imagined myself dreaming, or perhaps just squinting my eyes. Patience was a wonderful ally in this exercise, as estimating the exposure by eye with this camera involves a degree of trial and error and I must confess that there was a string of failures before achieving what I was hoping for. I aimed the exposure towards a chiaroscuro effect and deeper colour.
Wishes for post-COVID times.
As I was photographing on that Sunday morning I could not shake off the uneasy feeling of being in the eye of the storm — that the “normality” I was witnessing may be only temporary.
I also kept thinking about the gains in public space, and whether those streets that were closed off for cars could be pedestrianised permanently when post-COVID times finally arrive. Some of the streets have already been reconfigured with bicycle lanes.
The importance and relevance of safeguarding and expanding the open spaces offered by parks in the city has been proven by the great service those spaces provided to people living through a succession of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Then there is the I believe self-evident fact that working from home can bring so many advantages to a large number of people. Less crowded public transport and fewer hours lost on commutes. And financial savings resulting from avoiding the daily expense of the commute, plus the beneficial effect of more time available for family, friends and other activities. Maybe the current crisis also served to show that there is less need for office space in the city centre and therefore some buildings could be re-purposed. Less car traffic improves the quality of the air so quickly and noticeably, as it was clearly demonstrated in the early days of the first lockdown.
My hope is that opportunities for re-orienting how as a society we do things are not missed. In the meantime, however, it seems that improved messaging is again a must.
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 re-acquired the same model of camera that was my favourite before I began my digital journey. I look for lenses and cameras in charity shops, second-hand sections in camera stores, flea markets and auction sites. When a new (or at least new to me) item comes in, I follow the rule that another one must go, as I am not a collector, and also, I live in London where living space is limited. I am not a nostalgic person. I am very happy that digital equipment does, in fact, exist and that the old and the new can be used in many different and successful combinations. My goal now is to continue embracing both analogue and digital photography, for my personal projects and for client work when appropriate.