Portrait photograph 'Al' by Fran Monks, 2020. 1 of an edition of 20. Portrait taken of NHS doctor Al through a video calling platform. Produced as part of 'Social Distance - Lockdown Mark 1' series of portraits. Al is shown in a hospital setting, wearing full PPE, giving one thumbs up to the camera. The photographer can be seen taking the shot in a small window top right. Controls for the video call bottom left. Signed and edition numbered below.
Fran Monks’ striking ‘Social Distance’ portraits capture the experience of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown in both image and process. Speaking to her sitters through video calls, Monks photographed her computer screen, so that her own action is captured in the small window at the top of each image. Sitters are visible within their homes, and alongside their technology. The five sitters chosen for the Science Museum Group collection demonstrate a wide range of lockdown experiences, people who are hospital workers, home-schoolers, news editors, restaurant owners and those whose virtual worlds expanded, capturing both the positives and negatives created by the pandemic.
Monks explains, “This is a portrait via FaceTime of my friend Al, who is a consultant in a hospital in West London. While we were all in lockdown, he was doing the opposite of social distancing. During the height of the pandemic, he volunteered to help some mornings with the proning of patients in intensive care with COVID19. This was a technique which seemed to help patients to breath more successfully.
I was really grateful that he spared a minute one morning for this picture. He messaged me to say he was starting to put on his PPE and that he would call me when he was ready. I was surprised that this procedure took about 30 minutes. Once we linked up on the call, it was deﬁnitely the most speedy portrait of this series. Most people who I photographed were at home and had plenty of time on their hands. Not so a hospital consultant.
I was relieved to see that Al had what looked like good protective gear, but he was virtually unrecognisable. It honestly felt like a call from another world. I can imagine it must feel very strange to have all your carers looking like this. Al asked a colleague to hold his phone while we quickly framed the shot. I really didn’t want to take any more time than I needed, as it felt like he had much more important work to do.”
As a whole, the ‘Social Distance’ series shows us how photographers have found ways to continue working during lockdown as well as the immediate and fundamental role of video calling technologies in everyday life. Monks responded to disappearing work, as the UK entered lockdown, by turning to a past idea of photographing through a video call. Thanks to a social media callout she was able to gather volunteers from around the world, resulting in over 70 portraits. As a process, ‘social distance’ portraits presented challenges: the sitter had to take a much more active role in helping Monks to assess the space, check light levels, and work out the best frame for the portrait. Bandwidth and webcam capabilities became crucial alongside lighting and composition. Photographing the computer screen with her Leica, Monks plays with how the black outline of the screen mimics the black border on a dark room print. Even through layer upon layer of digital process, these portraits therefore echo more traditional photographic techniques, while also capturing how online media infrastructure has helped to shift our everyday interactions as video conferencing software has become more and more ubiquitous.
Monks’ portraiture aims to celebrate the under-celebrated: "During the height of the pandemic, individuals were making huge sacriﬁces by staying at home to keep others safe. I wanted to bring awareness to the important contributions being made by these people."