Portrait photograph 'Kawsar' by Fran Monks, 2020. 1 of an edition of 20. Portrait taken of restaurant-owner Kawsar through a video calling platform. Produced as part of 'Social Distance - Lockdown Mark 1' series of portraits. Kawsar is shown standing in his restaurant, behind a stack of chairs and tables. 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, “This is Kawsar, the proprietor of one of my favourite Oxford restaurants, The Standard Indian. I photographed him via Zoom and a very precariously balanced laptop. Like restauranteurs all over the world, Kawsar had a diﬃcult time navigating the lockdown. Once the government required that all restaurants closed, The Standard tried a couple of nights of take away service and then decided that the safest thing for the community was to close down completely.
Luckily, he says, theirs is quite a modest operation. He owns the business with his brother, and they do not have a huge staﬀ, so they were able to be quite ﬂexible when it came to closing.
Kawsar used the time to put in place all the ideas he has been thinking about over the years. When they re-opened in July 2020, initially just for take away, and then for sit down meals, they redesigned their menu, taking into account health and responsible sourcing. When I saw Kawsar for the ﬁrst time, in real life, after this picture, it took him a while to remember that I had not been in the restaurant making the portrait, but just on a screen. I think the lockdown has been a very unusual time for our memory making.”
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.”