Corona Rhapsody: Is this real life?

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Rafael Heygster and Helena Lea Manhartsberger’s collaborative project captures the surreal tensions of life during Covid-19

“I feel like I’m in a mediocre apocalypse movie,” says Rafael Heygster, who is currently in Hanover, Germany. “When I go to bed, I sleep well, I wake up happy, then I look at my smartphone and my news app reminds me about coronavirus and all the things I can’t do.” His frustrations are relatable. It has been 10 weeks since lockdown was enforced here in the UK, and the novelties of working-from-home and group Zoom calls are well-worn by now. The pandemic-experience for many of us has been, frankly, quite boring — far from the gripping drama of Contagion or 28 Days Later.

Queues for supermarkets, police presence in parks, patterned masks and latex gloves — all of these things have become rapidly normalised. “It was hard to grasp the reality of the situation at first,” says Helena Lea Manhartsberger, who is from Tyrol, a western Austrian state that borders northern Italy — the epicentre of the pandemic’s beginning in Europe. “I was getting updates from my friends and family who were already in lockdown, but here in Germany, we were still going to clubs and bars, people were smiling, nobody really wanted to believe the same would happen here.”

In the beginning of 2020 suddenly a pandemic spreads around the globe. Germany is dealing with the corona outbreak through infrastructural measures and new rules of social distancing: Although there is a high number of cases in Germany the health system has not collapsed, the death toll is comparatively low and with the growing acceptance of the lockdown, slowly a “new normality” seems to establish. For us, the whole situation feels like a surreal dream. Being involuntary confronted with this Corona-Situation, we started to photograph the infrastructural changes as well as the the public life. Working as a team allows us to illuminate not-staged situations to underline our surreal feeling to this new reality. Portraits are staged.

Heygster and Manhartsberger met at photojournalism school in Hanover, and since the advent of the pandemic, they have both been “stuck” in the city. Unable to travel for assignments, and sharing the same sentiments of living through such a surreal experience, they decided to collaborate on a new project, Corona Rhapsody.

All of the stories they have covered so far capture a certain tension that is created by the rapid establishment and normalisation of new rules and infrastructure. They photographed “car concerts”, where spectators honk and flash at the end of each performance, and Hanover’s 500-patient field hospital, where trainee medics of the German Armed Forces practice drills in a facility that remains unused today.

The treatment facility, specially built for 500 Covid-19 patients, remains unused today. © Rafael Heygster and Helena Lea Manhartsberger.

“It was quite funny because these soldiers were in their early-20s or late teens, and it felt more like a class of vacation,” says Heygster, recalling the clumsy way in which they practised putting together equipment and dressing in PPE. “On one hand it was impressive how fast they built this infrastructure,” Manhartsberger adds, “but then you see these soldiers who don’t even know how to put on the right shoes.”

Heygster and Manhartsberger also photographed various protests — by left-wing, right-wing, refugee, and conspiracy, groups (or a combination of all four in some cases) — and socially-distanced parliamentary meetings, which look more like exam halls than important conventions for decision-making.

The parliament of Bremen meet in an exhibition hall. Each member has their own table, set up 1.5m away from one another. © Rafael Heygster and Helena Lea Manhartsberger.

“We have daily press conferences, high police presence on our streets, but then you look at the park and everything seems normal,” says Manhartsberger. But really, there is nothing “normal” about the “new normal”. Heygster and Manhartsberger’s images are theatrical to the point where they might appear to staged, but these surreal images are a reflection of how many of us perceive the pandemic — a period of uncertainty and contradiction, heightened by a disjunction between how the crisis is portrayed by the media, and what is actually going on in real life.

A car concert in Hanover. The band cannot hear clapping, so the 1200 visitors honk and flash after each song. © Rafael Heygster and Helena Lea Manhartsberger.
Mounted policewomen disperse three young men playing football in a park. In Germany it is forbidden at the time to be in public with more than two people if you do not belong to a family living in the same household. © Rafael Heygster and Helena Lea Manhartsberger.
Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.