Documenting Strange Times: JJ Waller’s New Lockdown Project
JJ Waller is well known in Hastings and St Leonards. In the first lockdown he photographed more than 100 local individuals and families from behind windows, doors, and balconies and published them in a book: Lockdown: Informal Portraits of This Time. This project was described by HIP as “an exceptional testimony to the lived personal experiences behind the Covid 19 pandemic”.
The response to the project in Hastings and (particularly) St Leonards was one of enthusiasm and an energy to do something else. So much so, that he returned to the idea of capturing people’s lockdown experience, initially with no clear endpoint in mind, “It might be a book, it might be a film. If I knew where I wanted to go, it wouldn’t be the same sort of adventure.”
He set out on a similar path to last time, asking volunteer subjects to contact him via email. The call-out attracted those who featured in Lockdown: Informal Portraits of This Time and new participants in equal numbers. JJ feels that the two projects “sit together well” but the journey is very different. The previous portraits highlight the isolation of the Covid lockdown – people looking out with hands and faces pressed against a barrier of textured glass or peeping from behind net curtains – but the new project is looking in on people’s lockdown activities, often mundane: drinking tea, playing scrabble, drawing, home schooling – and often wearing interesting clothing combinations.
The subjects are surprisingly open about their lives, which makes the images poignant yet powerful. Sometimes the viewer feels like a voyeur intruding on a private moment – such as the glammed-up middle-aged woman in a basque, fascinator and green satin gloves amidst incongruous possessions: an old piano, washing basket, Scrabble set. Others are more surreal, such as the couple whose flat is crammed with vinyl albums and scattered fox terrier toys and books – carefully arranged to face the camera. ‘He’ sits studying a Laughing Clowns album cover, while ‘she’ is immersed in a photobook of the real fox terrier that sits, almost unseen, shyly in her lap.
According to JJ, the key to the new project is collaboration: “When people got in touch, I asked them to think what they wanted to communicate about lockdown, and when they described it to me, I told them ‘That’s the photo’.“ JJ had to adapt to a new style of working, where the subjects themselves had to arrange the lighting and furniture and find props to create a scene representing their lockdown activities and preoccupations. Some of the resulting images convey a sense of a ‘tableau’, There is often an element of fantasy (one even involves a Punch and Judy show), many have a wry humour that make you smile.
In most cases, the photos are so detailed, so ‘close up and personal’, that it’s hard to believe they were taken through a window or door. JJ explains that he generally directed operations looking through a window using a camera with a 50mm lens mounted on a sink plunger stick. Not surprisingly, most participants live in houses or ground floor flats, although one couple (who live in a 3rd floor flat) were photographed through their car window instead. Other portraits, still in planning, involve a woman outside her flat on the sixth floor wearing a seagull costume; and a tableau that involves some flatmates wearing pigeon heads in Gotham alley (referencing Reservoir Dogs).
The project is still open but will be wound up as lockdown comes to an end. If you are keen to be photographed, JJ says there are still some opportunities. He also hopes that later in the year there will be an outdoor exhibition of all the portraits.
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