We Can't Stop What's Coming

Looking back, the first couple of months of this decade were a last hurrah for the world as we knew it. Or maybe it was just the calm before the storm. Newsreaders were getting worked up about wet markets in Wuhan, a virus on the loose, and draconian measures to combat it. But full of optimistic bias, we reasoned it away. That won't happen to us. Swine flu, bird flu, SARS, MERS, Zika; they all fizzled out. Why should this be any different? Even when the talking heads turned their attention to the nightmare in northern Italy, it still felt like watching a film rather than being in one.

I was living in Madrid at the time, photographing daily life. Football fixtures, festivals and fake funerals for fish; all continued as usual. But unbeknown to us, something sinister was in the air. And it wasn't just the virus. The response to it was also replicating. Around the world, governments were casting aside the values of liberal democracy and following communist China into lockdowns, mandatory masks, and travel restrictions. By mid-March, police and the military were patrolling the Spanish capital, ensuring anyone outside had a valid reason and fining those who didn’t.

We were living in a ghost town. The only sound was the low hum of fear and uncertainty. Commanded to keep our distance, the scenes I photographed weeks earlier were now forbidden. Even chatting with a neighbour was fraught with trepidation. Life became a waiting game of rinse-and-repeat routines. Indoors. The authorities had snatched away our civil liberties and gave no date for their return. It left me with a sense of ambiguous loss that was difficult to comprehend. Anecdotes of artists documenting their captivity were in contrast to my own experience. Maybe out of a reluctance to actualise the situation, I was reticent to do the same.

After three months, we emerged from our collective hibernation. And I escaped Madrid. The hammer and the dance continued. While politicians played with their new powers, disaster capitalists cashed in, people lost their livelihoods, and children lost out on education. Frustrated by the paternalism in Europe, I fled to Mexico. Their more autonomous approach gave me some catharsis, and my photographic impulse returned.

In 2023, I went back to Madrid. With the idea of creating a before-and-after photography project, I wondered about the people in my original photographs and how the pandemic might have affected them. I looked around for signs of an aftermath. On the surface, there were none. The streets were busy, festivals were back on, and bars and restaurants were full of happy punters. It seemed society had pieced itself back together. Was this a sign of tragic optimism where people overcome difficult situations with a new appreciation for life and its possibilities?

This series, shot in January and February of 2020 in Madrid, records the last moments before those dark days. It was a time when people were free to make their own choices. For many, the adversity changed their perspective on life. Some are still figuring out how best to move forward - while others have re-prioritised freedom, health, and relationships above unfulfilling jobs and shallow superficialities. Me, I realised living within the prescribed imagination of others is a struggle. Lockdowns stifle my creative spirit and make me wonder how artists living under oppressive regimes find the impetus to express themselves.

Whoever was the first to say the price of liberty is eternal vigilance was right. We should be brave enough to speak up when things go off track. As a photographer, being free to think and act independently fuels my creative process. Maybe, that is why these pictures retain their significance. They are a reminder not to take these things for granted. Autocrats will always use our welfare as an alibi. We can't stop what's coming. But if we keep a watchful eye, neither can they.


Spain; Madrid (Jan - Feb 2020)

Zine available on Blurb; 28 photographs & a 650-word essay

Substack post about my creative process 


 

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