Julia Fullerton-Batten’s surreal portraits capture the longing of lockdown

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With a new Kickstarter campaign underway, the British photographer is set to turn her acclaimed cinematic series, Looking Out From Within, into a photobook. Ahead of her photobook masterclass in partnership with Academy 1854, she tells us more about the project

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Back at the beginning of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the national mood was tense and unsettled. Almost overnight, our public spaces emptied, and the freedom we’d taken for granted slipped away. Long used to physical connection and the bustle of daily life, we were suddenly contained within our homes. Collectively, we began to count time in ever-slower ways. 

During this period, the German-born, London-based photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten began noticing the faces of people gazing out of their windows as she went on her daily walks. They looked forlorn, she recalls, almost spectral behind glass; they compelled her to reach for her camera. “It was as if they were trapped,” she says, “and as a photographer I felt I couldn’t just stand around and do nothing. I knew I had to record this odd and surreal time.” Her project Looking Out From Within is the result.

©Julia Fullerton-Batten - 'Penelope, Lockdown Day 51' from her project 'Looking out from Within'

Initially, Fullerton-Batten drew similarities between what she was seeing and the paintings of Edward Hopper — a long time influence on her vision. “Seeing how often his subjects are singular people, looking through windows, alienated; I took reference from that,” she explains. After putting ads out on social media and posting notes into local letter boxes, she selected the responses that excited her most. In each instance, she discussed ideas for costumes and sets with her sitter, and in turn they’d send her pictures of ideas from within their own homes and wardrobes. For some shoots she took props along: fake birds to make portraits look like classical paintings, for instance, or smoke machines to bring ethereal visual drama to the scene. 

Fullerton-Batten is now in the process of launching a Kickstarter campaign to publish Looking Out From Within in photobook form. “When we look back at this time in years to come, we will think of the challenges we endured and overcame, and I hope my photographs will play a role in that memory,” she says. “Rather than people just seeing it on their screens, or every now and then in an exhibition, I want it to be something that people can hold, return to and reflect back on.” Alongside her photographs, Fullerton-Batten also interviewed each of her collaborators. In the book, she has included all of their voices, but she’s chosen to place the text at the very end of the edit, so as not to break the atmosphere created by the images alone.

©Julia Fullerton-Batten - 'Ann, Lockdown Day 74' from her project 'Looking out from Within'

Fullerton-Batten has worked as a photographer since 2001, and she’s known worldwide for her large-scale, theatrical and highly-staged aesthetic. She’s also used to working with huge teams — but all of that changed when the pandemic hit. And so she needed something to focus her energies on. On shoot nights, she’d pack her car full of equipment, and enlist her 12-year-old son as her assistant. The street became her studio, and window frames the new parameters of her sets. What she loved most about the process was how it took her back to the basics of her craft. “This is how I started off,” she says, “and it’s made me rethink how I will carry on with my work in the future.”

The photographs in Looking Out From Within conjure a world where everyone is contained within their own bubbles, like dioramas in a museum. It’s almost dystopian, but at the same time the images are cinematic, rich and painterly: bathed in jewel-tones, and getting progressively warmer. This is because when she started shooting the work, it remained light outside late into the evening, allowing her to utilise natural light. As time wore on and the nights drew in, she began to rely more on artificial light, and thus her sitters in later pictures are illuminated by an increasingly amber glow: a contrast to the cool, blue-hour tones outside of their windows. Regardless of the time of year, she always chose to shoot in twilight, she says, because she’s always “found a surreal magic in that short space of time.”

All of these aesthetic choices encapsulate the tone Fullerton-Batten was trying to strike. Because, while Looking Out From Within is a project about isolation, it’s also about human connection. It was important for a level of positivity to shine through, too. With the use of costumes and props, it allows not only the photographer, but her subjects, an escape; a fantasy world to lose themselves in for a while.

©Julia Fullerton-Batten - 'Zewdi, Yabsra and Ehiopia, Lockdown Day 42' from her project 'Looking out from Within'

The Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami introduces her collection of short stories People From My Neighbourhood with the words: “Take a story and shrink it. Make it tiny, so small it can fit in the palm of your hand. Carry the story with you everywhere… You never know when you might need it.” In many ways, Fullerton-Batten’s photographs – especially in photobook form – function in the same way. Each of her images is a small but rich snapshot of individual experience. But together, they speak evocatively to a greater story. 

“Every street corner offered a row of new narratives,” Fullerton-Batten muses. “Each of the inhabitants had their own tale to tell.” As the people from her neighbourhood gazed out onto the streets she walked, she responded in turn by looking back in, and crystallising a little something of the year they were experiencing – we were all experiencing – alone, together. 

You can back Julia’s Kickstarter here.

Interested in publishing your own photobook? Stay tuned for Julia Fullerton-Batten’s self-publishing masterclass, unpacking everything she’s learnt in the process – from concept ideation through to running a successful Kickstarter campaign – coming soon to Academy 1854.
Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London