In April 2020 at the height of lockdown Redeye invited the philosopher Dr Katrin Joost to give a talk reflecting on the effect of the pandemic on all of us, both individually and collectively. Her talk also included reference to the part photography plays in exploring these ideas. The essay below expands on those reflections.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk reflecting on the lockdown. I have thought about the drastic events from a philosophical, more precisely, from a phenomenological perspective, albeit in an informal manner. At the time the urgency and level of existential fear were very heightened due to the recent drastic measure of the lockdown in response to COVID-19. The scope and severity of the impact on everybody's daily life lead, in my view, to a fundamental shift in our life experiences, which led for me to the following questions:
How does the COVID-19 world appear/disclose itself to me?
What is the lived experience of lockdown isolation?
How do I experience my life with others?
If you are familiar with phenomenology, the formulations of these questions might ring a few bells. I feel strongly that it is immensely fruitful to use the phenomenological perspective of interrogating how things appear to us (as opposed to what they are in themselves), how we experience things in our concrete lives and how all of our experiences are always and immediately in a social context. It is important to bear in mind that these questions are fundamentally interrelated, like different sides to the same thing.
In my reflections I would like to point out five (again interrelated) points.
- The obvious point of a pandemic being the reason for the crisis. The still ongoing, existential fear of infection across the whole world is the basis for our current situation.
- The resulting measure of the lockdown can be understood in terms of world-shrinkage. Being confined to our homes, our movements are limited, our access restricted, so our reach into and possibility of interaction with the wider world is not an option.
- In the face of existential worry and limited access to the world, there are a number of fundamental shifts in meanings and reconsiderations of relevancies, of what we consider to be essential and important in our changed lives.
- One obvious and major aspect of the lockdown is a completely changed social interaction. We are socially distancing because we collectively come together in care for others. Interestingly, our changed relationship with others is often mediated through technology in attempting to bridge isolation.
- Our sense of time is transformed. The experience of isolation and limitation as well as the sense of a crisis that will eventually, somehow, come to an end leaves us, still, in a position of a hiatus, passively waiting, allowing us to reflect on what is important to us.
In conclusion I would like to point out how some photographic practice can be understood almost as visual philosophy. Consequently, there are now bodies of work emerging that reflect my analysis in, maybe, a more intuitive manner.
I hope that the following reflections resonate with the reader as observations that tell us some interesting points about the concrete experience of the lockdown world.
Ongoing worry and existential fear – encompassing the whole world
One of the basic points of this crisis is that COVID-19 is a virus that has created a pandemic. This clearly results in personal worries about becoming ill oneself as well as friends and family (with an infection that is still not completely understood). This anxiety is acute and palpable. Even if, as it is in my case, we are not directly affected (yet), there is still the ongoing fear it might happen. This is quite unlike our knowledge of other threats on our lives we are more used to e.g. the likeliness to get cancer.
I not only modified my behaviour, obediently observing social distancing, but every shopping trip becomes a 'thing' I must gear myself up to. I must observe my behaviour and the scope of my responsibility is quite oppressive. I fear I make a mistake and may become infected, or worse infect my partner who is much more vulnerable. As time in lockdown goes by, I have calmed down, but I wonder how people who have to expose themselves more (NHS workers and carers and increasingly other workers who are forced to return to work etc.) and people living with very vulnerable partners and family are coping.
We listen to the news that give us current death tolls (worldwide), reports on a government that is struggling to respond, devastating reports on the NHS, reports on how other countries are reacting and on and on. The infection infected the news, there is hardly any space for anything else. (more on that and relevancy later) ...
This is leading to very fundamental consequences which are directly shaping our understanding of our world around us and our understanding of ourselves, as individuals and as part of a community. It is important to register how all-encompassing this experience is. This is not an event that sits in front of the background of normality, but an upheaval of our lives colouring all our present experiences. The pandemic horizon has replaced the previous realm of normality and pretty much all of our behaviours, some more (going shopping, not going to get your hair cut,...), some less (TV viewing habits, clothes choices,...) are shaped in relation to the presence of the virus in our world.
We are locked down. We are not to go out unless it is essential. Social distancing is now our way of relating to others (more of that later). Many public spaces (most cultural, social, public spaces) have become inaccessible (e.g. restaurants, cinemas, theatres, shopping centres – even though now some areas are meant to slowly reopen, such as schools and some shops and workplaces). As time goes on, it feels as if they disappeared. We cannot travel, go to other places. Effectively we are confined, some more so than others depending how much private space we have. Our world, our lifeworld has shrunk. Our reach into real space is defined by our private living circumstances, but beyond that, (apart from essential journeys) public space is taboo.
It is interesting how deep-reaching the confinement is. It is more than a prohibition of certain spaces, partially, because it is motivated by fear, but mostly because everyone is affected. The horizon of our world has shifted fundamentally. Of course, we know that the actual spatiality of our world is the same as it was, but the fundamental retreat of the social and self-imposed restrictions has made the beyond increasingly vague, distant, almost fictional.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of a phenomenological outlook is to think of the world not merely as the sum of all things, but as a lived world (Lebenswelt). We are living within the world in a concrete, actual, often visceral manner, involving all our senses. The world is not merely a static, separate geometrical space with objects in it. So, when all our lives are drastically, spatially limited, for a substantial time, our lived experiences of our immediate and more remote environments are fundamentally changed. Our lives, our lived world, our world has become a very different and smaller place to be.
Shifted horizons, collective transformation of meaning and relevancies
Considering the lockdown as not merely a basic curtailing of space, the horizons of our reach have been limited. As a result, a whole host of behaviours have been affected. As you all know, all our routines, our work, our leisure, our relationship with others, all have changed. The horizons of our beings have changed. And what is more, they have changed for everybody. (Unlike e.g. in the case of illness when an individual's lifeworld is radically changed, the horizon of the collective world remains. As radical as it is for the affected individual who must adjust and find normality in their changed circumstances, the backdrop of the world and all its relevancies remains there. Communal normality, even if it is out of reach, still pertains to the affected person's sense of world. And we all orientate ourselves within that, the ill person with a different set of accesses and possibilities as well as the affected people around the ill person.)
Yet, being in a pandemic, the world's horizons have changed for everyone. There is no clear base-line other than a memory of how it was before. We try, more or less successfully, to live up to these memories, but the reality of now is fundamentally different for everyone.
And I think this leads to general shift of significances and considerations of what is important. Many issues become remarkably meaningless – party politics, foreign politics, fashion …
Our attention is shifted and constantly relates back to the pandemic. For most of us, before the lockdown, a great deal of our daily lives was carried out, almost without thought, out of habit and just because our routines have evolved slowly. Heidegger might call this self-forgetfulness (Selbstvergessenheit) as, normally we tend to be absorbed in the matters at hand, forgetting ourselves in the flow of lived experiences. Now, everything is put into a sharp focus of attention. Getting up in the morning, I must ask myself what I am going to do today. This results in questioning the meanings of things, issues, practices, all sorts of aspects. What is important (work, if possible) what is dangerous (shopping), what will I enjoy (exercise)? We must evaluate not only the loss of access, but how we behave, move and relate to others within the world that remains. And maybe we realise that we used to spend a lot of time on activities that are not really that important.
Social distancing and collective closeness – Technology
Yet, rather than thinking that we all become only focussed on our individual safety and comfort, we must remember that the seriousness of the crisis is rooted in the fear of infection, not only for ourselves but essentially for others, for everyone. I find it somewhat heart-warming, that the sense of urgency of this crisis is overwhelmingly motivated by the care for others. Yes, we are concerned about the limitations of space and access, but most people are happily limiting themselves in order to protect others.
Interestingly, we also realise how much our everyday life is not only intermeshed with but depending on social interaction. What almost everyone seems to miss most is the free interaction with other people, whether it is spending time with friends and family or whether it is just catching up with neighbours or chatting with someone on the bus. Freedom very much turns out to be free to be with other people (very much unlike Sartre's view that hell is other people).
Philosophically this is interesting. Many theories tend to take the first-person viewpoint and add on the interaction with others (epistemology). But how the being with others is at the very core of our existence is coming to the fore now. We can now almost see how some theories, like Emmanuel Levinas' fundamental ethics of the other, make intuitively a lot of sense.
We can see this in how much everyone is concerned when exercising or shopping. People dance around each other making sure that they apologise and emphasise that ordinarily they would not behave like that. We talk to neighbours over the fence we have never acknowledged much in the past.
Interestingly, we become more reliant on technology. This is nothing new, but now the reality of Zoom and Skype meetings and virtual events are concrete, if not ideal, alternatives. Our world is curtailed, but the digital realm widens it. The screens we interact with are not merely objects in the world, but also allow us to reach beyond our physical scope. As such they pertain to an increasingly complex web of horizons of the world. It is a real extension, not the same as face to face communication, but it carries a reality that has not been widely acknowledged. Our lived experience of the world, now, increasingly includes fundamental dimensions that are technologically mediated and yet, as direct as ordinary experience.
Hiatus, Waiting and Reflecting
The initial shock of the lockdown felt like everything stopped. The pandemic, for most people (not the frontline workers) demands passivity. We are asked to obey public health recommendations, which at the height of the crisis, were a command to not do certain things, to refrain from usual activities (as going out, meeting people, etc.). It felt like everything came to a halt and we now must wait; wait for further government guidance, wait for things to get better.
Beyond that initial moment of shock, the limitation of the range of activity and space we could occupy, I think, led to a different sense of time. I mentioned above that we are much more conscious of our choices as to how to structure our work and leisure in the face of fear of infection and care for others. This resulted in less time spent on thoughtless routine activities. And arguably, this leads to a sense of, as it were, having more time to deal with. This is not simply describing people who have simply more time, since they are not going to work and not doing routine errands that involve moving in public space. It also means that for many people, who must deal with reimagining their work as done from home, continuing errands in a different way, and often on top of that organising home schooling, almost the entire day needed to be attended to differently. Either way, we have an increased sense of taking control of our time. We are much more consciously deciding how to spend it. Those with more time to spend, might have demanded of themselves a different kind of productivity. Think of all those ambitions, that were declared on social media, frantically doing stuff you otherwise never have the time to do: clean out the shed, learn a new language, write that novel... Despite the ridiculousness of some of these ambitions, I think they are all rooted in the desire to mark this waiting time as useful beyond the curtailing of the pandemic. Similarly, those who were almost overwhelmed with this new way of structuring time sorting out work, children and care for others, had to make decisions not only how to go about packing all these demands into the day, but also how to do so in a meaningful and right way for them and their families.
Philosophically speaking, we were all finding ourselves in a position to reflect on the meaning of life. It might sound a little dramatic, but in an all-encompassing crisis that forced us to stop, refrain from our usual way of going about our business, we all must reassess what are the important things we want and need in our lives.
By now we all seem to have become, at least to some extent, used to the presence of the Covid-19 virus and the resulting measures. The lockdown is starting to be eased – some agree, others not so much, that this is the right course of action yet. Overall though, we have adjusted to the new routines and, arguably, we are relaxing into a more thoughtless way of living again. I hope though that the radicality of this experience will open up a more fundamental debate around what is important in our lives, personally and politically. We must not forget how health is crucial to our wellbeing and that we need to value those who help us when we are ill or injured (the NHS as well as the care sector). Similarly, we should remember the importance of others, of our friends and families, but also just the sense of being part of a community, the joy of being with other people. Similarly, in lockdown many of us have found a renewed sense of perceiving nature and our place within our environment.
Maybe our previously accepted standards of success as almost exclusively marked by economical productivity is not the best way to find meaning in life. As we emerge from the lockdown, I sincerely hope that we won't simply rebuild the economy in its previous shape but take the opportunity to incorporate some of the realisations of lockdown.
Photographic Practice Reflecting the Sense of Lockdown
Philosophy is mostly seen as an academic subject that exclusively deals with ideas in the form of speech and writing. However, I think philosophy as a rigorous investigation of reality and existence should not necessarily be limited to the arena of the written and spoken word or indeed to that of university-led academia.
I have contemplated elsewhere how some photographic practice is a visual methodology to think philosophically about our world.
I think it is fascinating how the photographic community has been reacting to the Covid Lockdown. I feel this is an interesting moment when photography is not only documenting how the lockdown has perceptibly changed our world, but also visually expressed how it feels to experience lockdown. Many organisations are collating photographic visualisations of this crisis, such as Format's #massisolationFORMAT, Foam's #foamathome, etc. There have been several Calls for Work to the effect of chronicling this extraordinary time.
Many photographers are trying to make sense of what is happening through visual investigation.
Henry Iddon has been documenting public spaces and the sense of absence or altered behaviours within them in a very evocative way in his series “Lake District Lockdown”. This work shows us familiar places like that should, at this time of year, be busy with people. Similarly, his series “Corona Lockdown” reflects the measurements of non-access and social distancing by showing workers in protective clothing, signages and markings. Each image indicates a facet of the lockdown, but the strength of the work, in my opinion, is in the abundance of images, each of them showing again and again, that pubic space is not accessible and not what it used to be. This very much echoes with my reflections on 'world shrinkage'.
John Darwell's work has a different take. John was working on a project “Birds Thru my Window” when he, due to an operation on his elbow, was housebound and visually reflecting on his relationship with his immediate surroundings. Yet, when the lockdown struck the work gained a whole new layer of significance. Increasingly, he thought of the work in relation to “Splendid Isolation” as we experience collective isolation. Moreover, he started revisiting other projects, some he completed years ago. Some were resonating personal experiences relating them to a new collective experience (“A Black Dog Came Calling”). Other bodies of work, some of his post-industrial documentary projects, evoke visually a sense of recognition showing workers in protective gear (albeit for completely different reasons). Yet his work documenting the Foot and Mouth Crisis in Cumbria in 2001, “Dark Days” portrays inadvertently the current all-present sense of danger of infection and limitation of access, even though the danger of infection of Foot and Mouth was then very much limited to certain areas and, more importantly, not an immediate threat to human health. I think his work and how he reframed elements of previous projects for now, very interestingly shows the fundamental shift in meanings and relevancies due to the Covid Crisis and lockdown.
My own work, such as “Heraclitean River Reflections” and “Walking Sense”, explore our relationship to landscape in view of time and experience (avoiding framing landscapes as still views). These works too have gained a different sense. As I explained above, I feel that our sense of time and heightened attention to the present moment and immediate environment make us look differently at the landscapes we find ourselves in. Using the panorama function on my iPhone I create images that take time to emerge. As such they are as much representations of the place I am in as well as of my time being there.
In lockdown walking and being outside was the only alternative from being at home. And for many of us the sense of walking and being outside constituted a space of solace and comfort in the face of the pandemic.
We are still in crisis, but when we emerge, what will the world look like? Or more importantly, how will we look at the world from now on? Allowing ourselves to view things differently, enables us to change things for the better.
My reflections are from a very privileged position, for a number of reasons:
Firstly, neither myself nor anyone close to me has been infected by COVID-19, at least not seriously. (I do have friends and family who are very vulnerable, however, luckily, none of them have fallen ill). Yet, the anxiety around possible infection remains and is a constant horizon of existential worry.
Secondly, I am financially in a fairly secure position. I have lost a short-term job opportunity and as I am currently in the process of a career change, I am very concerned whether my pre-pandemic plans will remain a viable (if changed) prospect. Still, compared many other people whose livelihoods and jobs have been destroyed and, moreover, whose outlook is also devastated, I am in an extremely privileged position.
Thirdly, living in the countryside (isolating with my partner, so I am not alone or lonely), I have the luxury of a large garden and access to the countryside. Social distancing is easy. I am shielded from even seeing the exhausted care and NHS staff who are directly exposed to the danger of the virus and its devastating effects.
 On a more philosophical level this could be likened to a mood rather than a phenomenon. In Being and Time Heidegger talks about not only how we are “thrown” (Geworfenheit) into this world, but also that there are manners or moods which shape the way in which we find ourselves within the world (Befindlichkeit). Lauren Freeman explains this well in her article “Toward a Phenomenology of Mood”:
Mood is one of the basic modes through which we experience the world and through which the world is made present to us. Moreover, moods are the lenses through which things, people, animals, events, and aspects in the world matter to us.
(2014, Southern Journal of Philosophy, Volume 52, Issue 4)
In the light of the pandemic it seems to me that we all are seeing the world through a very different lens.
 One of the main contributions of Edmund Husserl's phenomenology is the recognition of the lived experience of our world in philosophical discourse. His final published work, The Crisis of the European Sciences, illuminates beautifully the importance of the ground of lived experience for philosophical thought that in turn ground the sciences. Bianca d'Ippolito explains this beautifully in The Concept of Lebenswelt from Husserl’s Philosophy of Arithmetic to His Crisis. in: Tymieniecka AT. (eds) Phenomenology World-Wide. Analecta Husserliana (The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research), vol 80. Springer, Dordrecht
 Heidegger explains in Being and Time how we are living our lives in intentional direction 'away from ourselves' and how we tend to be absorbed in the matters at hand, forgetting ourselves in the flow of lived experiences.
 Many of the fundamental ideas of the philosophers I mention here, including Levinas, are really well summarised and explained in the excellent online resource, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu
 Of course, we must bear in mind that there is still a substantial part of the population who have no or only limited access to this kind of technology. And therefore, it is crucial to understand how this difference in access is practically delineating two kinds of life worlds. One with a digital dimension and one without.
 Arguably the immediacy of our physical reality has already become more complicated, since photography, radio and TV have become major aspects of our daily lives. Vilem Flusser already wrote in 1983 very interestingly about the importance of the technological image (Flusser, V. 2000, Towards a Philosophy of Photography). Moreover, there are many interesting debates on this subject explored in the field of post phenomenology. Don Ihde has written extensively on technology taking a post-phenomenological stance.
 One might even say with Husserl, we find ourselves in the phenomenological attitude as opposed to the natural attitude. (Ideas I)
 I could include another section on how in lockdown the meaning of the natural world shifted, partially due to the sense of world shrinkage I explained above, but also very interestingly, due to the real impact of our altered behaviour on the environment (e.g. less air pollution due to less air travel).
 Henry Iddon published some of the series on FaceBook
 Some of this work can be seen on Instagram and Facebook
About the author
Dr Katrin Joost is an academic with research interests in the fields of the philosophy of photography, photography theory, media philosophy and post-phenomenology. Fascinated with the meaning of photographic seeing and the impact of the ubiquity of photography on world- and self-apprehension, she presents at conferences such as Photomedia Helsinki, published work such as 'Intimating Mortality' (2013, Cambridge Scholar Publishing) and presented recently a paper: 'Photographic Post-Truth: From Idealised Perception to the Priority of the Image' at Helsinki Photomedia, organised by Aalto University.
Image: Lived Lockdown, by Katrin Joost.