31 Dec 2021

the pandemic, a photographic history

I've been fascinated by the creative output the pandemic has produced, in particular - and unsurprisingly - through photography zines, books and exhibitions. I've referenced examples already but wanted to draw some themes from the ones I've picked up along the way.

It's also an opportunity to reflect on my own response, of course. We're at a significant point now in England. The national unity of the first wave of the pandemic feels a long time ago. We're approaching a new year better protected but with less confidence of getting back to normal than last December. There's a creeping realisation that how we collectively learn to live with the pandemic comes next.

The images and texts in these zines and books are already historic. However for me it's as much about the motivation behind creating them as the actual content itself. They represent ways of using the act of making images and of distributing them to help deal with the situations thrust upon people, in a highly engaged way. Perhaps it's the act of turning documentary practices onto individuals and communities more cross-sectional than stereotyped. The consequences are not only a record of our times but place image making, of and by ourselves, at the centre of that record.

The early days of lockdown initiated a number of "doorstep" projects and one I really like is Levy Lockdown Portraits by Ciara Leeming that she's now developed into a full participatory project with her local community sharing experiences through stories and diairies as well as photography.

Levy Lockdown Portraits zine cover

Using photographs to stimulate personal narratives is also a feature of Birmingham Lockdown Stories by Jaskirt Boora. Here we move from the doorstep into locations of peoples' choice, which is a wonderful way of creating trust and representations of worth.

Birmingham Lockdown Stories zine cover

Another zine with the mission to "move beyond the doorstep" was published this year. Still Life by WorkHorse Collective presents some innovative interprations of lockdown life with a mission to give a platform to people otherwise underpresented.

Werkhaus Still Lives zine cover

Taking control of representation is also a feature of My Camera My Therapy by Natalie Ball. Giving equal weight to the testimonials of photographers opposite their images in the zine is symbolic of their relationship with photography and the role it plays in their lives in lockdown.

My Camera My Therapy zine coverr

Paul Treacy produced another of his wonderful handmade books and it was great to see it picked up by the BBC. Pandemic Constitutional is a soulmate of Natalie Ball's work as a portrait of someone coming to terms with life with COVID. I can certainly relate to the structure of the work, found pictures taken on walks around a local neighbourhood, but Paul's phrase 'sustaining creativity' is particularly striking.

Pandemic Constitutional book cover

Two other personal collections of local life in the early months of the pandemic are Village Lockdown by Robert Law and Lockdown Fakenham by Keith Osborn. It's fascinating to cross-reference the images that could be interchangeable in places.
Village Lockdown zine cover

Lockdown Fakenham zine cover

At this point I have to mention two collections of London lockdown photography. The LIP Chronicles from the London Independent Photography group I'm a member of. Produced on newsprint, images from group members are arranged across a weekly timeline from the announcement of the what became the first lockdown in England, reflecting a range of creative responses. Even looking back at it now sparks memories.

LIP Chronicles cover

I must say the London in Lockdown collection, published by Hoxton Mini Press and introduced by Jilke Goldbach presents a tremendous range of work. Chris Dorley-Brown's early morning cityscapes I was familiar with and Jemima Yong's Field too. However for me the variety of images in Spencer Murphy's Our Bullet Lives Blossom As They Race Towards The Wall conveys the strangeness of those days perfectly.

London in Lockdown book cover

Continuing the theme of compilation, perhaps what will become the official record of events Hold Still published by the National Portrait Gallery is a survey of the nation taken from an open submission of portraits by people across the country. Raising money for Mind, it also generated a digital and an outdoor exhibition of the work across the country at the end of 2020. Looking at it now a year on it perhaps best captures what was characterised as the blitz spirit of that period.

Hold Still book cover

A 180 degree view of that are posed by three very personal works. A project I greatly admire and wrote about last year is good to reference here too. Amuleto by Francheska Melendez and Ben Roberts is a powerful synthesis of the pandemic in Spain and the Black Lives Matter movement. Eighteen months year on, the value of documenting that summer is so valuable as memories fade.
Amuleto book cover
Europe is also the setting of John Perivolaris's Pandemicon 2020-2021, an odyssey from Scotland to Italy and Greece, made all the more poignant by its dedication to the death of his mother from COVID.

Pandemicon 2020-2021 book cover

I've been intrigued by the idea of a box of prints and as an alternative to zines and books it was so good to see that approcah taken by Tristan Poyer and his work Masked: A Portrait of Amazon. His rationale is best read directly. I couldn't do it justice by paraphrasing it. For me it's the best testimony of this period I've seen.

Masked: A Portrait of Amazon cover

For completeness I'm going to add two of the first publications I found at the start of the pandemic and mentioned last year, Insiders and Limbo. Now in retrospect it's fascinating to see the work produced so early in the pandemic and that initial period of extreme isolation when many creative people found ways of expressing and supporting eachother.

Insiders zine cover

Limbo zine cover

I'd also like to mention a non-photographic work for the stimulation of its writing. When This Is All Over by The London Society is a range of essays about the possibilities and opportunities of post-pandemic life in London. It actually does have a some fine images and illustrations so I think I can sneak it in to this selection ;)

When This Is All Over cover

And finally - for now - I'd like to include a work that's just been crowdfunded so I don't have it just yet but with the title Photography through the Pandemic it's hard to resist.

When This Is All Over cover

I do sometimes feel I should just "move on" from the fixation with the creative consequences of the pandemic. When I see work like this it gives me faith to stay the course. 

A little longer.


29 Nov 2021

long lockdown

Reflecting on a second year of COVID it would be strange not to include the five storeys high exhibition. However the real highlights for me have been the impact on local community groups. This outreach work was part of our pitch for fundraising and for me in particular became a way to reconcile my initial unease with the project. Spending time with a group from Southall staring up at the front of Ealing police station felt like a way of squaring the circle.

The resulting workshop back in their space produced some poignant reflections on the impact of the pandemic on their lives. I brought A4 versions of the photographs from the show to pick from and A4 paper so they could draw and write their responses. It was a privilege to hear the emotions and memories evoked by the photographs. Afterwards, sharing their creativity with the photographers whose work was selected alongside the accompanying pieces, gave us all a moment to reflect for ourselves.

It also gave me momentum to develop a pop-up version of the exhibition to create a space in a community centre in another part of Ealing to share their experiences of the pandemic.  

 Ealing Unlocked Popup

I spent time with people in a couple of drop-in sessions just listening and then talking about the idea of the show and encouraging them to bring their own photographs from the last eighteen months. The result was a unique display of photographs made by the Gurnell Grove community during the pansemic on screen, presented alongside a mini version of Ealing Unlocked on foam board, ranged around the community centre. 

Collaborating in this way, to recognise the value and give a platform for people's images, was another fascinating way to leverage the original project to create something new and significant.

Can't wait to see what we can do next.

10 Oct 2021

the other side of lockdown

I'm writing this having just published my third book of photographs from the streets of Ealing over the last eighteen months. I'm anticipating - hoping? - it will be the last, having reached the end of the official restrictions, in England at least, back in July. However I think there's little belief that this is the end of the impact on the mental and physical health of a large part of the population and will be felt by generations to come.


My motivation for documenting the symbols of these times as they unfolded was to find a way for me to comprehend the changes in our ways of living, working, even being. In a world where so much influence is attributed to social media, I've been struck by the intimacy of handwritten notes and signs. Shops have become time machines, fast-forwarding us into the future. Hairdressers going out of business, re-opening as COVID testing centres. Want to buy some shoes? How about an electric bike instead? Simultaneously we've been pulled back in time. Posters for cinema and theatre openings replaced by public information instructions. Take a Jab for Britain. Countered by Cold War cartoons on lamp posts, representing the resistance. The mask has become a touchpaper of division we'll live with for a long time.


It's been positive to turn these sideways observations into something of tangible benefit for people directly impacted by the pandemic, through making a contribution to Ealing Foodbank from the book sales. It's now set me on a path of working with other members of Ealing LIP to find ways to use photography to enable local community groups to express their own feelings about their experiences..

I've also been taken by my pivot from a lifetime of pursuing a passion for black and white photography on film of people on the streets of London's West End and other cities around the world, to a daily routine of using my mobile phone to record what I literally stumbled across on my morning runs around my local neighbourhood. So where does that leave me now, when I have the freedom to return to those streets? It's important to recognise the ideas and movements that have come to the fore in these febrile times. Rights of representation and the power of privilege are now impossible to ignore in everyday life and certainly in the practice of street photography. It's made me re-think carefully about my own ways of working.

On that note the range and brilliance of creative response to these time has been inspirational. I confess to having found it hard to resist buying books and zines, often for good causes, as well as attending fascinating virtual exhibitions and talks about peoples' ways of dealing with lockdown and loss. I'm proud to have been part of Ealing LIP's own contribution through the Ealing Unlocked exhibition. Platforms have been taken by marginalised voices and opportunities seized to innovate and share ideas with new audiences. I hope to see that the channels of production - as well as the work - will not be forgotten too.


The pandemic has been a portent of the pace and impact of disruption that will become more common as we face the realities of social and climate disruption. Photography's response will inevitably draw upon its history of documenting, but I feel its tradition of activism will become more vital and those shifts in the balances of power can be amongst the positive changes we can take through the other side of lockdown.


4 Sept 2021

five storeys high

This year's group show of my local photography group is literally a step up from my last one. Taking over the front of a five storey police station sounds a pretty subversive exercise but this is being done with their cooperation and the support of a great crowdfunding campaign.

I confess to ambivalent feelings about the project. Initially I was intrigued if this would ever get off the ground (OK, the puns stop here) so getting involved in the fundraising has been a real education. It's understandably seen as a community relations exercise so for me the project has become an opportunity to engage local community groups in their experiences of lockdown and unlock (last one) some of their thoughts using the photographs as a starting point. Photography has become for me more and more a means to an end, the images themselves just one point in the process.

I'm really looking forward to working with people on these and continuing to try and make some sense of our times using photographs. No pressure then.

9 Aug 2021

staycation fever

A break in Scotland presented me with a opportunity to take some different kind of photographs. no it's not the landscape of glens and waterfalls. You can take the boy of the street but the streets are still...well you get the picture.  Here's a series of snaps from a bedroom window. There's a lockdowny (word?) feel but it was the composition of the view and a sense of time passing that struck me.

Bus-stop-1 Bus-stop-2 Bus-stop-4
Bus-stop-3 Bus-stop-5 Bus-stop-6

In the back of my mind I'm sure was the wonderful TTP project by Hayahisa Tomiyasu.

4 Jul 2021

countdown to freedom

Approaching the last weeks of the easing of lockdown in England I have to be honest I have mixed emotions. The restrictions and fear people have had to contend with for so long are now coming to an end which is great news. It also means - be definition - the end of my project which I have so enjoyed. It's been both a journey around my neighbourhood but also one where I've had to think hard about the photographs I make, the why and the how.

It's an opportunity make a final visit to the areas of Ealing I've been a regular visitor to over the last seventeen months, From Southall to Acton, Greenford to Pitshanger and all points in between. The motivation to publish the books is still to raise money for Ealing Foodbank but they've also become a great way for me to reflect on these strange times with a humble first rough draft of history  

IMG_20210603_061130 IMG_20210603_062535 IMG_20210313_074339

Documenting evidence of the effects of lockdown on our daily visual experience has inevitably brought my attention to a range of social trends of city living. The rise of diversity in advertising, in parallel to the use of wartime imagery in lockdown resistance campaigns. How paper and print are still a viable way to communicate messages even with the ubiquity and power of online influence. The evidence of people's front windows and walls to reveal the personalities of their occupiers in very public ways.

Enough. There's work to be done. 

6 Jun 2021

remember this?

I've celebrated my own return to normal this week. Back in the West End with a camera - not a phone - using film - not digital - in black & white - not..well you get the picture.

Iford film canister

It was a poignant moment. Lockdown has really made me consider my practice of street photography. I'm more conscious of the privileges I have to work in the way I do. Ethics are implicit too.

However I confess that feeling, giddiness even, of giving yourself to the moment, going with the flow, getting in the zone, is still as strong as ever.

Is it too late to change my style now? Is muscle memory too dominant? I have to ask why do I still plough this furrow, like a lounge musician still playing the standards, after all these years. My answer has been simple, a little pompous. It's because I have to. But I don't think that cuts it today. My Living Lockdown project has been about using that privilege to give back. Maybe that's the way forward, my own new normal.


16 May 2021

season two on catch-up

I feel a little guilty. 

It's not quite ruin porn but I do feel I'm benefiting from the ongoing restrictions on everyday life in London. I feel the way to turn that into something more altruistic is to publish a second Living Lockdown book to raise money for Ealing Foodbank in what's becoming a version of a series of unfortunate events.

Living Lockdown August 2020 - January 2021 Book from Sean McDonnell on Vimeo.

I've picked up the story from the end of my first Living Lockdown book last July and...well I'll let the author speak for himself

So on I run around Ealing, through the slow release of the first lockdown into the tiers of autumn.  

My routes are familiar but the streets are changing.  

Help yourself items on garden walls are rarer now.  

Chairs have been taken inside and the chalk games washed away in the rain.  

Gloves are out of fashion. Masks are all the rage.  

Social distancing is second nature as pavement circles peel and fade.  

Shop windows play with time. Advent calendars on sale before Halloween and late-night Christmas openings that never happened.

But change is coming.

I've followed a similar selection and editing process to last time, as you can see in my collection of albums on Flickr. I think the sense of fatigue that we speak about comes through with moments of despair and humour. Very wartime.

Buy now and donate.


25 Apr 2021

portraits in their place

"How does one inject oneself momentarily into someone's life and come away with something that resonates with some real aspect of the individual?"                           Dawoud Bey 

I've recently had the privilege of experiencing a new work by Dawoud Bey called Street Portraits. It's a collection of powerful photographs of African American individuals and couples largely from the streets of Brooklyn and Rochester made between 1989 and 1991. I use the word powerful carefully as he also describes his work as about 'not only the picture making part but there was very clearly the social part'. His portraits give a sense of agency, respect and yes power to the people photographed. I have a real sense of a collaboration, understanding and empathy between them and the photographer through their eyes, gestures and poses. 

Dawoud Bey Street Portraits book cover

For me this makes the images incredibly uplifting. It's more than the composition of the photographs and their reproduction, which are both magnificent, but they really speak to me if I can use such a contrived phrase. The titles of the images are at the back of the book so all the viewer has to work with on initial viewing is the pure photograph. Granted I still acknowledge the social and political context in a very simplistic way and having spent a short but significant part of my life in New York at this time there's a further, tenuous chord they strike.

Coincidentally I've been enjoying a series of online talks and discussions courtesy of Paul Halliday from a range of photographers including Bas Losekoot discussing his recent book Out of Place. I love the way the images have been brought literally off the page using different size pages to overlap each other and simulate the chaos and serendipity of the street. The insertion of improvised film scripts as a commentary on the photographs as stills is another neat angle.  

. Bas Losekoot Out of Place book cover

However for me the making of the images was a throwback to a way of working which I admire but find it harder to reconcile. Dropping into a society for a short period of time and finding ways to depict it, to give it meaning, can lend itself to decisions on subject and composition that make for interesting images but are open to question on representation of those cultures. It made me think of work by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Alex Majoli which I enjoy but now find wanting...

I'm certainly not one to throw stones as it's a style of working I've been privileged to follow for a number of years The motivation behind my last book New Europe 2015-19 was to find a way of giving more social context to my photographs beyond the pure aesthetic of street life from different cities. I still have lots to do and I accept the limitations of this kind of photography. Street portraits used to be an oxymoron for me but Dawoud Bey's work is inspirational.



30 Mar 2021

augmenting realities

Little did I know my last gallery experience pre-Lockdown was a portent of things to come. The Deutsche Börse show in 2020 featured the work of Mohamed Bourouissa and my review included a piece of augmented reality that transposed itself into the space. Now 12 months on that at-a-distance experience is all we have by way of a gallery going event. This year's Format Festival was virtual and the gallery dedicated to the to the pandemic was is a particularly poignant site-specific setting for the work. 

Format Festival gallery screenshot

I joined a tour where some of the photographers spoke about their work as we were guided by a hidden, dextrous hand around the space. The selection was really interesting. I had an immediate response to Chris Hoare's Street Cleaners in Bristol. The images play on their hi-viz appearance but the low visibility of their appreciation. It's a well made point. Ironically when I see a street cleaner my heart sinks as I feel they've just swept away a moment of detritus, a piece of history of our times. Whether it's another Deliveroo receipt or a broken Corona bottle, they're all potential representations of the mundane that in future we'll look at with different eyes.

It was great to see Jaskirt Boora's Birmingham Lockdown Stories featured having found her book very moving. These documentary style pieces were then bridged into more personal responses in Playing Their Part by Shaista Chishtyjuxtaposing representations of people of colour in the context of World War 2 and the pandemic. It's a valuable perspective on the wartime spirit that's been evoked over the last twelve months.

The other piece I responded to was Field by Jemima Yong transforming the observed into something more symbolic, combining the consequential images of isolation and social distancing into a piece of performance art. Evoking for me Hayahisa Tomiyasu's TTP project it's a much more significant piece as the context of it is a profound commentary of life lived now. Do watch.

Virtual galleries do present challenges, comparable in a way galleries in the real world - as we've come to call it - do in terms of accessibility. However the opportunity to hear photographers talk about and show their work to potentially a global audience should not be ignored. The last year has and continues to expose me to work I would not have had the opportunity to before so it's one, at least, upside to our current life.

Indeed, it may become a habit.


5 Feb 2021

street photography 4 good

Well for a serious issue my fundraising event for Ealing Foodbank seemed to tap into a real need for a break from the latest Netflix must-see. I "sold" over a hundred free tickets for my chat with Mel Giedroyc and over 60 people joined us for a walk through my book of photographs of the streets of Ealing in lockdown last spring and summer. Thanks to a few technical rehearsals with my family the evening went well. In addition to the reactions and questions during the evening I was really pleased that we raised over £200 in donations. A few more book sales afterwards took the whole campaign to over £1,000 to help people in crisis.

Street photography with a social conscience is traditionally the domain of the French humanist school. Pre and post war it's influence is still very much evident in the slice of life style of street photography. Ironic, humourous. It's a great way of cutting across cultures and boundaries to find a kind of universal truth. Personally I'm more interested in a style that is just as prevalent today but can be characterised as the New York school from the 50s & 60s. Alienated, anonymous. In a way it's just as romantic.This is how I felt when I started using photography to figure out a way of relating to New York City in the 80s. Ironically perhaps that's now not as distant a gap as it felt at the time.

Manhattan street image

I don't know if #streetphotography4good will ever trend but it's an interesting development for me personally. This isn't New York, hey it's not even London any more. Whatever happens next it won't be the same place for a while. My style really will be an anachronism. To be honest it's about time I questioned it myself and use my privilege for something more than just another print on the wall.

Meanwhile Book 2 beckons

17 Jan 2021

be more us

Lockdown rolls on and it was inevitable my response to my photography group's challenge to pick 9 images to represent 2020 would feature them. However instead of replaying a selection from my book I thought it was an opportunity to reflect on how much the familiar has changed. 

I've found the transformation of advertising an interesting reflection of that. No new films, plays and exhibitions to promote. Seasonal holidays, retail sales and sports events are now all out of sync. We're left with those spaces - especially by bus stops - giving public information from physical health to mental well-being. For me it adds to that wartime atmosphere, or at least my imagining of it. I'm fortunate the closest I've been to anything like this are my family holidays in the 70s.

IMG_20201122_085142 IMG_20201011_085440 2020-06-30_08-05-52

COVID references are also seeping into advertising not as a warning but a selling point, almost as a new subculture is absorbed by the mainstream to appear more 'edgy' or 'relevant' but in our upside down world the relevancy is about hygiene, safety and security. Fear is further played upon with a new service to document your grandparents' memories, now ironically the most valued members of society - no longer the forgotten or neglected, for a while at least.

IMG_20210101_085805 IMG_20201224_084310 IMG_20201231_090039
IMG_20201129_083450 IMG_20201129_083116 IMG_20201223_061910

My final image of looking forward to 2021 is a genuine reflection of a feeling of a lot of people but again it fits with the trend of brand advertising that isn't about the product but in some tangential, sometimes tenuous, way connects to a broader societal issue. 2020 provided plenty of opportunities to do that.

Roll on 2021.