“The hanging mask felt to me like an amulet: an item to be hung alongside keepsakes, mementoes, and religious objects, to protect the driver from the chaos of the outside world”
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many unexpected objects, phrases, and rituals to the forefront of our daily lives. Over the last year, hand sanitising, working from home, national lockdowns and supermarket queues have become infused into our lifestyle and vocabulary. But, out of all the novel habits the pandemic has introduced, perhaps the most iconic and widely recognised, is the facemask.
Early on in the pandemic, Ben Roberts began to notice that people were hanging their facemasks from the rearview mirrors of their cars. On one of his daily walks around Cercedilla, a town in the Guadarrama Mountains, 50km north of Madrid, Spain, Roberts peered through a windscreen, and took a photograph. “I knew immediately that there was a strand that I needed to follow,” he says.
Amuleto, published by Herepress, is the result of a collaboration between Roberts and his partner, writer Francheska Melendez. It combines Roberts’ images with fragments of text and quotes assembled by Melendez, from friends, family, or strangers she met in the town. “The pressure of the pandemic pushed us to bring together our individual responses and reactions,” Roberts explains. “Rather than remain isolated in our particular experience, we found a way to have a conversation about what was happening – with me speaking in visuals and Francheska speaking in text. It became a way to digest the situation.”
Here, Roberts and Melendez elaborate on their collaboration, reflecting on the individual experiences behind what has become a universal symbol of the pandemic.
British Journal of Photography: The fact that all of the masks are displayed in car windows feels significant. What was your thinking behind this?
Ben Roberts: Francheska and I have both spent the majority of our lives living in urban centres – Francheska was born and grew up in Manhattan before moving to Madrid, while I grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham before living in Edinburgh, London and Madrid. In these downtown areas, owning a car really felt unnecessary. We could walk or cycle everywhere, and if we needed to get away then we could take a train or hire a car for a weekend. Just under three years ago we decided to move to a small mountain town called Cercedilla, 60km north of Madrid in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range. We survived for about eight months without a car before we realised that having our own vehicle was becoming a necessity.
In our region, a car is just a necessary tool of daily life – for doing the shopping, for bringing firewood home, and for getting to work or school. It’s a private space that for many local people is where they spend a couple of hours every day. The majority of the cars that I photographed were obviously in very regular use, and I felt like the objects inside, the dust and marks on the exterior, and the choice of mask were in effect a portrait of the owner.
The hanging mask felt to me like an amulet: a new item to be hung alongside keepsakes, mementoes, and religious objects, like rosaries, which are meant to protect the driver from the chaos of the outside world.
BJP: Each mask feels as though it has a certain personality, and they become quite sculptural. Do you see them in this way?
BR: I photographed the project over a period of four months, and as I collected more images and worked on the edit with Ben Weaver, from the publisher Here Press, the masks started to resonate with more personality. There is a photograph towards the end of the book where it feels like the two masks hanging from the mirror are involved in a dance or embrace, protecting and supporting each other. It’s easy to imagine that this could be a reflection on their owners.
Other dynamics at play include the colour or pattern of the mask, the material, and how weathered an individual mask might be. Perhaps it’s possible to read into this something about the wearers feelings about the pandemic. The wearing of masks in Spain is almost universal, so the hanging of the mask in such a prominent place can be seen as a statement – I wear this mask, it protects me and others, and I don’t want to forget to wear it.
In Spain, the rear view mirror is a private place in public view, where people aren’t shy to display their allegiances and beliefs – from the patriotic Spanish flags to religious iconography, dreamcatchers, feathers, mini football uniforms and baby shoes. The mask is a new arrival into this space, and in many instances adds to the display of identity that reflects on the car’s owner.
The majority of the masks were photographed in early morning or late evening light – the way this light filters through the glass of a car window emphasises the ephemeral nature of these objects, without diminishing their importance.
BJP: How did you choose which mask went with which passage of text?
BR: The spirit of collaboration that I share with Francheska extends to my relationship with Ben Weaver and Jack Latham at Here Press. Ben designed and published my first book, Occupied Spaces, in 2012, and it felt like the natural thing to approach him with this new body of work. We proceeded to work closely over Zoom calls to develop the edit, while Jack helped us to figure out how the text could reflect Francheska’s personal experience.
When it came to the final sequencing and the pairing of text and image, this was very much Ben Weaver’s initiative. Francheska’s essay evolved through several iterations – the final draft was so transformed from previous versions, that it initiated a full re-design of the book that led to the resulting interplay of text and image. Ben has an incisive eye, and he was able to pick out details in the images that complement sections of the text.
BJP: Who are the people you interviewed? Are they intentionally left anonymous?
Francheska Melendez: The quotes in the book are from conversations I had during the same time period that Ben was photographing the images in the book. There are also found quotes, which I uncovered online.
I’ve kept them anonymous for several reasons. Firstly, for ethical reasons. Many of the quotes included in “Amuleto” stemmed largely from informal conversations with my network of contacts, including friends, colleagues, family members, and others. Often the people I spoke with were incredibly candid and emotional, sharing thoughts that were quite personal in nature. I heard many phrases that felt particularly powerful to me and would continue to “ring out” in my head. So after the conversations, I would write down those words as a way to solidify their power, as a way to turn them into spells, amulets, protection, truth, that I could access again and again. This is how I digest advice, even when it is not offered as such.
The first person I spoke with is the only interview subject who I officially set up an “interview” with. In that conversation, it became clear that the more personal experiences would make the most sense with this project.
Another reason for the anonymity of the voices is to embrace the universality of what is being said and experienced. Often when we focus on the identity of who is doing the talking, we lose sight of the fact that we share common ground with them. Sometimes the common ground is safe, sometimes it is uncomfortable to realisze where one stands. Rather than shifting power and focus to the speaker, I hope to reflect the words back in on the reader.
A third reason for keeping the quotes anonymous is in an effort to match the anonymity of the mask owners in the photographs. Just as those who own and wear the masks are anonymous, so the speakers who paint a partial portrait of themselves in their spoken words remain anonymous.
Amuleto by Ben Roberts and Francheska Melendez is published by Here Press.
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. 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, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.