Words || Sara Zarriello
On any normal day, Jeremy Cohen would have been walking along the streets of Brooklyn; camera in hand, amongst the honking of yellow cabs and the hustlers trying to make it in the big ‘concrete jungle’. That was until the Coronavirus pandemic enforced the closure of most public arenas, including schools and workplaces. The photographer now finds himself on the cusp of a new reality. Across the pond, in Bedford [United Kingdom], a town known for its red-brick buildings and wild greenery, photographer Chiara Mac Call is similarly stuck in this strange isolated life. Here I sit, in front of my computer typing these words, in the same exact position as both Jeremy and Chiara. An unprecedented occurrence has swept the entire globe. It has made our seemingly infinitesimally far away worlds feel truly connected, beyond globalisation and social media. All at once, each and every one of us are in the same boat; it is not something anyone had asked for.
With the restrictions cutting off his ability to continue his work on foot, Jeremy has found new ways to adapt. Whilst being stuck in his apartment for days on end, the artist would often look out his window to a horizon of concrete rooftops. He soon noticed that it was becoming a daily ritual for tenets to come above and do some physical activity, something normally done within the gyms and dance studios closed at the time. With kind eyes set under heavy brows, Jeremy recalls, “I saw all these people frequenting their rooftops way more than I’ve ever noticed before… I thought it was fascinating, [so] I started my series.” The ‘Rooftop Series’ is aimed to document the unprecedented changes occurring in Brooklyn society during the pandemic restrictions.
Jeremy explains that the inspiration for this series is “New York in general. [It has] a lot of transplants, but also a lot of New Yorkers… whether you’re one or the other… the people here make it really interesting.” Buzzing of sirens and the constant thumping of shoe soles along the streets, mixed with puffs of exhaust smoke fill the cracks in the sidewalks. He continues “… [the] mentality here [is] like work hard play hard”, as his silver earring rocks back and forth to the beat of his head, “Everyone’s here for a reason and wants to do something big. It’s inspiring to be around a lot of go-getters.” The zoom call allows me a slight peak into his world. Jeremy’s apartment holds the air of a hustling New Yorker creative: from the select artworks pinned to his walls to the cloud-like light hanging from his low ceiling. Albeit the small size of the room, he points me towards his window. The place where his work and inspiration, during quarantine, floats in.
Watching the daily news, a constant wave of coronavirus updates flood our screens. Information is thrown at us with no end in sight. We’ve needed to change our lifestyles: update our physical activity practices, the way we complete our work, how we travel, how we buy food and supplies. The list goes on. This is a global crisis, effecting every person on the planet. The concept of “going back to normal” is null-and-void. Our collective mental health is being affected deeply by the social isolation inflicted unceremoniously upon us, without an end date in sight. The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare distinguishes social isolation from loneliness, as the two concepts do not necessarily need to co-exist to be present. You can feel a sense of loneliness but be socially connected to others, whilst it is possible to be socially isolated, as we currently find ourselves, and to not feel lonely.
Yet there is an obvious decline in the mental health of Australian citizens. The Australian Loneliness Report of 2018 recorded one in four Australian adults were lonely. Just in March alone, the nation’s crisis support service, Lifeline, have answered a 25 per cent increase of calls during the same time, in comparison to the previous year. Our old ways of socially engaging have been cut off. Our challenge now, is finding new ways to come together.
From the beginning of the lockdown, Chiara Mac Call has been going on a walk each day as a form of exercise. It is on these walks that she has been taking a photograph of different household families from behind their window’s or doorways, as part of a new documentary photography series. She writes, “I only missed one day due to blisters, one because someone cancelled on me and one because I had a migraine.” It was immensely important to Chiara, to have a highly ethical methodology for her lockdown photography project, as this bred trust at a time of social unrest. “… People felt able to invite me – albeit from a safe distance – into their lives in a way that I do not think would have happened had I operated [differently].”
Capturing people in their homes, how they wished to be viewed and in their own choice of positioning, as well as getting their absolute consent to post the images, strengthened this trust into connections. Chiara recalls, “I could tell you about the day I went to photograph a mother and daughter [whose] husband/father was in hospital with Covid and… was sent home that very day, so I was able to photograph them together.” She continues to tell me, “There is the family who had a baby during Covid, and I was the first person to photograph them together since the birth. There was the family who invited me to witness their preparation for the breaking of their fast for Ramadan… [or] the wonderful lady who sent me home with a plant… and the family who introduced me to all their neighbours so I ended up taking a shot of the street with all of them at their respective doors.” Community engagement in the project has erupted, with strangers calling for photographs to be taken of them, to participate and connect with Chiara. Creatives and artists across the globe are adapting and documenting new ways of social engagement.
Social media has been a saviour for a lot of people. Apps such as Instagram and Snapchat offer quick interactions, whilst new educational tools such as Zoom have been effective in breaching the gap between offices and students working solely online. Although these tools have allowed us a quick way of communicating with others, face-to-face interaction is still something that is hard to have for longer than a few minutes a day with anyone outside the home. As restrictions ease further, the questions remains – now, how do we interact in society? For many people, it feels like a sense of dread is inherent in social interaction. A fear of contracting disease through sharing and touching is understandable. Unlearning old habits and educating ourselves on new ones is the challenge ahead.
“[I] want [to]… bring hope and joy to people” Jeremy smiles at me through my fuzzy computer screen. His series is about capturing people on their rooftops, dancing and having fun, despite a pandemic looming around them. “Everyday I take a couple photos here or there. I’m always looking out my window to see if anything’s happening…” he enthusiastically points towards the light streaming down the left-hand side of his room. In literature, windows are often used to establish a juncture between realities. Mythologies and fairy tales such as Rapunzel, make use of the window as both the barrier and key to the outside world. Here we are in 2020 staring out our windows, imagining and wishing for a better future. Travel writer Brian Johnson, stresses the very real power of looking out our windows as a portal to “… a tantalising world of possibilities”.
In pandemic, we stare out our windows for a source of inspiration and the knowledge that others are out there, that something greater exists beyond the room we sit in. Poetically, Chiara breaks down this window phenomenon present in her work. “First they reflect the outside world and in doing so, you get to see all that quintessential Bedford red brick being reflected. Second they draw attention to the barrier between people.” She goes on, “Finally at least half the images have… a reflection of me in them. My reflection is how you know that this is not just photos of people in lockdown, it is photos of people finding ways to overcome isolation…” whilst maintaining social distancing regulations. The window has become the symbol of freedom for a world divided by fear and isolation. The static of his voice grows serious as Jeremy says, “In the past I’ve told stories through just images.” His face lightens as he explains how the incorporation of videography into his work has opened up new avenues for interacting with his audience, “It’s been a new route of storytelling.” “I’m liking doing it and it seems to resonate with other people…” Jeremy posts short comical or reality type videos with voice overs and new camera work, on the platform TikTok, “It’s made me more creative.” Chiara shares this same outlook on the future of her project, “Weirdly having a rigid framework within which to operate helped me focus and making a daily commitment to go on a walk to connect with someone gave me a routine I was committed to honouring.” Adapting to a new way of life has encouraged the photographer to not only change how she works but how she interacts with her neighbours on a deeper level.
This has undoubtably been one of the more difficult periods of human history. Being enclosed in our little worlds has left us dreaming of freedom. As Chiara puts it, “People at windows… has become a ubiquitous image for our times. It is a visual clue to how life has changed.” Our world will never be the same, just as it wasn’t after other major crises have swept our globe. We now have the chance to make something new. A better world, possibly one that is freeing of the problems prior to Covid-19. In Bedford, lush grass lines the River Great Ouse embankment as its straddling footbridge alights at dusk. In Brooklyn, when darkness falls over the mish mash of brick apartments at all varying heights and widths, seemingly tiny windows lined across them spill out yellow light whilst others blend into the night. In Sydney, our Harbour Bridge sparkles as its reflection hits off Port Jackson Bay below, onto the ships and boats docked. We just need to look out past our tiny rooms, to the vast greatness beyond. A pandemic seems small when you face the precipice to the outdoors.