Strange Days – documenting London under lockdown

Marianne Stenger
8th June 2020

“Strange days” is certainly an accurate way to describe the months since the coronavirus pandemic first began to take hold. London-based portrait and documentary photographer Spencer Murphy says the realisation that he had to document what was unfolding came a few days before the UK went into lockdown in late March. As he was driving across town to pick up some shopping, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ came on the radio. At that same moment, he found himself passing people wearing protective masks and gloves. “It was one of the most surreal and cinematic experiences of my life, and I knew then that I had to try and document these strange days,” says Spencer.

Since then, he’s been taking his camera along when he heads out for daily exercise to photograph people as well as the paraphernalia that has come to symbolise the coronavirus pandemic. “Watching human behaviours change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, has been at once inspiring and deeply unsettling. The effects of this crisis will be felt for generations, and I hope the lessons we learn stay with us in more carefree days to come,” he says.

To get more of an insight into Spencer’s photo essay Strange Days, as well as his own personal experience of living through the pandemic, we asked him a few questions about his work and what it’s been like to document London on lockdown.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got started as a photographer?

My interest in photography began around the age of eleven when I discovered my mum’s back issues of Life and National Geographic. She was a keen amateur photographer and gave me a hand-me-down SLR. Later, skateboarding and film influences led me back to the camera and trying to document my friends or make our own films.  

After earning my degree in photography, I moved to London and assisted a mix of professionals for about four years. All the while I was pursuing a career in portrait photography and would pick up the odd commission along the way. The balance of commissions to assisting, as well as taking up a part-time position as a lecturer, meant I could quit assisting and concentrate on my own work.

Photos © Spencer Murphy

What sort of images do you normally shoot? Is street photography something you engaged in before the lockdown began?

I wouldn’t consider this street photography really, and I’ve never considered myself a street photographer. Perhaps the nature of the restrictions has put this project the closest to street photography that I’ve ever been.

I would describe my personal work as fine art and documentary photography, but I think I’m more recognised for my staged portraiture than anything else, so this is more often what I am commissioned to do. More recently, my looser documentary style is getting recognised and the commissions for that are slightly more regular.

I love both though. It’s nice to have the control I get in a studio setting with a pre-light, but then there’s something exciting about that brief interaction with a stranger and trying to make it work as an image. This project has really tested that to the extreme because you can’t really ask people to walk with you to a better location or find better light, so it’s been a very pure form of photography.

How has the lockdown affected your work and you personally?

All the projects I was working on were about community, interaction and intimacy, so everything I had lined up to do personally this year has been put on hold indefinitely. The photographic industry seemed to grind to a halt even before lockdown was announced, and my agent was getting cancellations for confirmed shoots weeks before we were officially in lockdown. So it’s been really tough personally and for the wider community.

A lot of my friends are in the same line of work, many of whom I have known since university or have worked with me. It’s a really scary time for everyone and nobody knows when things will return. All you can do is live day to day and try not to worry. In many ways as freelancers, we’re used to that uncertainty, as we have quiet months or even years, followed by insanely busy ones. It’s the nature of the work for most people I know, but this feels so out of our control.

I had an exhibition at The Irish National Gallery cancelled that was two years in the planning. All the work was printed and framed and ready to be shipped. I can’t put a price on that loss but I feel really sorry for the gallery who put all that work in and had to take the decision to never show it. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small sacrifice to make but it’s still a shame not to see that work ever come to fruition.

Personally, I’ve found making this project a good distraction, but as soon as I took my foot off the gas and had to face up to life in my little flat with the walls closing in, it got really tough. Actually, with the uncertainty of the easing of restrictions, I’ve found it even harder. I think like everyone I have my good and bad days. This year was preceded by a particularly tough one personally though, and I was pleased to see the back of 2019 and get back to some semblance of normality. The world had other plans though I guess.

Photos © Spencer Murphy

Could you tell us about Strange Days? How did the idea for this project come about?

A few days before the UK went into coronavirus lockdown, I took the car to a neighbouring district of London to try and pick up some shopping. As I drove, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ came on the radio, and at that moment I found myself passing by three people wearing protective masks and gloves: a mother and child waiting at a bus stop, and a teenager on a bike performing a pedal wheelie as he rode by in the other direction.

I turned to my wife to comment and she had tears in her eyes. It was one of the most surreal and cinematic experiences of my life, and I knew then that I had to try and document these strange days.

I have found myself taking pictures of the people and the paraphernalia that feel so symbolic of the Covid-19 pandemic. I want the images to feel as though you are moving through the city, as if viewed from a moving vehicle. Brief snatches of life amid a crisis, as I was on that initial day.

You mention that watching human behaviours change has been both inspiring and unsettling. What would you say are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed these last few months?

I can only speak for London, but there seemed to be more of a sense of community. People started to acknowledge one another. Perhaps it was just because of the social distancing thing but also neighbours who rarely interact, started to check on each other.

I grew up in a very small community and that was the way people treated one another there and then. We’d all pitch in if there were tough times. Don’t get me wrong, I value my privacy and alone time, but there just seems to be something more human about looking out for your neighbours and not just protecting what is yours. I suppose that was the negative behaviours we saw here, the panic buying and sometimes looting of closed businesses, the conspiracy etc. It’s hard not to judge, but I do try and see reason in the unreasonable.

Photos © Spencer Murphy

What have people’s reactions been like when you’ve approached them to ask for a picture?

It’s been really hard. People are so nervous, and so was I. I’ve been careful who I approach, where and how, whilst observing distancing. There’s been a real mix of reactions. Most people say no when you ask, and some of them in quite a firm aggressive way. I try to be diplomatic but sometimes it can be cutting and I tend to just reply with “that’s why I ask” and leave the situation as quickly as possible.

I’ve had people call me names and one even swiped the air with a stick, even though I was probably more than 10 feet from him. I’m quite resilient but some days those reactions make you disappear into yourself a bit and I may take still lifes and landscapes for a while before I ask again.

There’s no telling who will say yes and no. Quite often I’m convinced someone will say no and they turn out to be the friendliest person I’ve approached that day. I think I need to state here that this isn’t something I took on lightly. Usually I like to inspire and don’t want to appear guarded, but I felt a need to go out and document this and I have been very cautious.

I don’t want to inspire a load of photographers to take to the streets and do this because I’ve somehow made it okay. I have a very close friend who is a doctor at an NHS hospital and I’ve seen the impact this has had on his and his family’s lives, so please don’t take unnecessary risks just as some exercise in making photographs. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite but don’t see this as permission if you’ve not already felt compelled to do this.

Finally, could you tell us a bit about how you see this project developing further?

At the moment I’m giving myself a bit of a break. Initially I was going out every few days or more frequently if the light was good. Right now, maybe once a week. I will continue to see how the story develops, but I don’t see myself as a classic documentary photographer. As time passes, this will all get condensed down to something with a bit more nuance and an abstract narrative.

The pictures of the people in PPE may well start to play a smaller part and images with a subtler symbology will likely replace them. I often see my work as chapters in a larger story and in years to come this may get absorbed into something else. For now, I have the dedicated website, which I see as more of a historic record and don’t edit as strictly as I usually would my other personal projects.

Photos © Spencer Murphy

If you’d like to see more of his images or follow along as the project develops, you can find him on Instagram @mrspencermurphy or visit the dedicated Strange Days website. You can also browse the Bob Books blog for more interviews with photographers as well as tips and advice for creating your own photo book.

Biography:

Photographer Spencer Murphy now lives and works in London, dividing his time between creating his own artwork and taking on photographic commissions. He has contributed to many magazines, including The Guardian Weekend, Time, Vogue Italia and Wallpaper. His portraits have also appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone Magazine, GQ and Dazed and Confused. He has exhibited throughout Europe and North America and was named as one of the Hyeres Festival’s emerging photographers of 2008.

Top