Portrait photograph 'Claire' by Fran Monks, 2020. 1 of an edition of 20. Portrait taken of home-schooling mother Claire through a video calling platform. Produced as part of 'Social Distance - Lockdown Mark 1' series of portraits. Claire is shown sitting at a table facing the camera, with three small children opposite, visible from the back. The photographer can be seen taking the shot in a small window top right. 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, “Claire is a student of childhood studies in the North East of the UK and a mother of three children. She coped pretty well with lockdown. Her husband works in IT for a Swedish Engineering company and found it quite easy to transition to working from home. He also altered his working hours so that he could ﬁnish by 3 in the afternoon. This enabled him to take over the childcare and cooking from Claire, so that she was able to complete her studies on time without needing an extension.
Claire has quite a bit of educational experience and also her mother is a former primary school head and gave her lots of welcome advice for home schooling. Claire also found the children’s schools were very supportive. Claire says that in some ways during lockdown she reverted back to being a teenager and liked to sneak oﬀ to her bedroom to read a book. That’s the only room in the house that has nothing of interest to the children.
This picture was one of a series of portraits which I made in collaboration with the University of Huddersﬁeld. They were researching the impact of lockdown on mothers of school aged children and I made video chat portraits to accompany their work.”
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.”