Francis revisits images of the capital’s eerily empty streets, from the early months of the pandemic
Several objects have come to signify Covid-19: the disintegrating mask, abandoned in a gutter; the bottle of hand-sanitiser, syrupy residue sliding down its sides. They have become mundane markers of a period of monotony, isolation, and silence, which will remain etched into the memories of those who experienced it.
Jermaine Francis’ photographs of London’s lockdown go beyond these ubiquitous subjects. The objects appear amid the 171 pages that compose his self-published photobook – Something that seems so familiar becomes distant – but only as footnotes. Instead, the photographs focus on the capital’s deserted landscapes between March and November 2020, framing them from unusual perspectives. Initially, the premise may seem simple. But, leafing through the photobook’s glossy pages incites a visceral reminder of the pandemic’s advent: the anxiety and confusion that coursed through the city’s sun-dappled streets. And the political and social upheavals that would follow.
In a sense, the book is a visual record of a defining moment in recent history: documentation of locked-down London from Francis’ perspective. Now, a year since the first lockdown began, Francis reflects on several of the images he made during that time.
The image holds a special moment. One of photography’s great qualities is to suspend and accentuate. A young boy finds enjoyment while riding in circles. It is a reminder of how youth can find happiness in simple things. And also of that innocence, which remained despite such difficult circumstances.
There is also another layer. While making the project, I was thinking about the depiction of the Black experience. I wanted to represent Black individuals enjoying usual pleasures, like any other group depicted in an everyday context.
The Pandemic had many layers and narratives. The Black Lives Matter movement came to the foreground in the UK, as it did in America. Being Black myself, I felt it significant to represent the political dialogue in the journal, but in a way that was not literal and one dimensional. The day following weekend-protests, a Tory MP organised the removal of graffiti from the statues of Winston Churchill, and others, in Parliament Square. I arrived unaware of what was happening. A film crew was there. But, I documented the irony unfolding in front of me. The Windrush deportations had taken place under the new immigration agenda of the Head of the Home office. Before me, descendants of immigrants, like myself, were having to remove BLM from the statue of Jan Christian Smuts. Simultaneously, a man was protesting about his father’s death — also a member of the Windrush generation. It was akin to a mosaic of everything that was happening at that moment.
Another demographic of our society that did not have, and has never really had protection, are people experiencing homelessness. And the numbers had increased due to the current economic tsunami. Tents on the street became one type of metaphor for our failure to protect the vulnerable. This utopian world presented in the developer’s image starkly contrasts to the economic instability of so many.
In London, the streets may have been empty, but they were not silent. Graffiti, posters, and murals appeared across the City and became a space to tell stories and release emotions. I passed this message while walking along Euston Road. It touched me for personal reasons. The plight of domestic victims – especially knowing how many victims were isolated with their abusers – was on my mind. Being the son of a domestic abuse victim, I felt compelled to highlight it in the journal as it is an issue that we must not forget.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.