Portrait photograph 'Ricky' by Fran Monks, 2020. 1 of an edition of 20. Portrait taken of Ricky through a video calling platform. Produced as part of 'Social Distance - Lockdown Mark 1' series of portraits. Ricky is shown from above lying on a bad, with the compuer keyboard resting on her chest. 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 Ricky. I met her over FaceTime even though she lives in Melbourne, Australia. She volunteered to be part of my series via Twitter. It was so wonderful to chat. The picture was quite pixelated and the sound quite distorted, but it was so amazing to be able to make this connection. Ricky has been bed bound for most of the past 20 years and at home for the past 3 years. So she knows quite a lot about social distance and isolation. She lives with one ﬂatmate. He’s a student who does some regular chores for her. Twice a day carers come to help out as well. Obviously, coronavirus makes Ricky feel anxious, but also she is appreciating the fact that now that so much more is happening virtually, she is able to participate like everyone else. While lots of us feel that our worlds have shrunk, hers has expanded.
Ricky really empathises with people who are having to get used to self-isolation but she also worries that once the immediate crisis is over, this renewed surge in virtual activity will also disappear.
Ricky’s web cam is suspended above her bed, so there was not the usual scope for framing the shot, but I asked her to look at the light from her window. Later she sent me a picture of the trees that she was looking at. It’s a beautiful, calming view.”
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.”