Our COVID-19 Case Studies explore the different ways the photographic community is working and staying connected through the pandemic. If you would like to submit a Case Study get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Mark Hobbs is a commercial and portrait photographer based in Manchester. His work has been exhibited at Liverpool Independents Biennial and Tate Liverpool, and his prints are now held in collections in Canada and the UK. Over the first UK lockdown in 2020 Mark began his Chorlton Portrait Project: portraits of passers-by taken in his front yard.
How are you adapting your work during the pandemic?
When the pandemic originally hit, it wiped out everything I had lined up for 2020, which was really demoralising. I had to stop all my photography projects and plans for the time being.
I thought it could be a great opportunity; there’d be loads of time to get all sorts of things done - experimenting, learning new skills, researching. However, between normal work, my partner being a front-line NHS worker, plus two bored kids and my floundering attempts at home-schooling (“How do you multiply a fraction by another fraction…?”), very little has happened. Instead of learning the piano, in German, while dictating a series of novels, my output is more summed up by the fact I recently got a library fine for a book on how to stay motivated and get stuff done. Which ironically I hadn’t got round to reading…
How are you coping?
Generally OK but with extreme dips in places. Initially everything felt so bizarre and novel it was awe-inspiring. No-one had ever experienced anything like this, the world just stopped overnight. The sunny weather meant we could spend a lot of time outside and life slowed down from its usual frenetic pace.
That obviously wore off as things dragged on and events were endlessly cancelled. I think I’ve been hit more by this third lockdown - I was quite upbeat going into 2021, feeling the worst was over and we could all move on, then they slammed us with another lockdown and closed all the schools again. Wasn’t best pleased.
Has the new context inspired you to try anything innovative that you haven’t tried before? If so, what?
I’ve managed to run a new portrait project during the pandemic: the Chorlton Lockdown Portraits. I had the idea while cutting down the enormous weeds in our front yard just after lockdown started. I’m on a busy road and people were still walking past to buy groceries, get to work or walk the dog. I wanted to document that aspects of everyday life still carried on despite everyone being ordered indoors. I thought it would be interesting to take people’s portraits and get them to email me their experiences of lockdown.
I set up a wooden backdrop in my yard, sat out and invited passers-by to have their portrait taken (from five metres away). I wasn’t too sure what people would say, but there was a great response and I’ve continued the project during each national lockdown since.
My previous portrait projects involved seeking specific people or groups and persuading them to take part - which can be one of the hardest aspects of any portrait project. So this was a bit back-to-front for me I suppose.
I don’t think so many people would take part on a whim normally either, if I’d have just set up the project in any other year. Due to the lockdown, people were more interested in doing something a bit novel, partially due to the strangeness of pandemic life, partially just to break the monotony.
Are there any working methods that you envisage keeping once the lockdown is over?
Kind of, more in a planning ahead way. As I said above, I’ve felt torn in several directions recently, but once everything is back to normal, I want to have a more structured approach to photography again, and give it more priority in my life.
What are your current and future plans for making, showing, distributing work?
Originally the project started as “something to do for a few weeks while this all blows over”. I’m planning to continue until the end of March 2021, which will be a whole year, and hopefully around the end of the current lockdown. I’d like to edit it into a photobook, combining the portraits with participants' stories in three sections, one for each lockdown.
What advice, resources, links or projects would you like to share with other photographers?
Remember you can meet with one other person for a walk outside each day. Your friends are feeling just as rubbish as you are, so give them a call and arrange to meet up. It’s about the best thing you can do for your physical and mental health in these difficult times.