The other day, I watched Aston Villa squander a one-nil lead to Chelsea, before they eventually lost 2-1, as is the want of the Gods of relegation. *Shakes fist at the heavens* Taking my mind off my frustration I began to count the number of bricks in the building opposite, visible through the pane of glass in the white door leading from the living room out onto the metal balcony, which I always walk onto so gingerly.
Maybe it was the desire of wanting to distract myself from the sight of apathetic millionaires, clad in Claret and Blue, pretending to care in the empty stadium or the seductive power of the golden hues of sunlight, filtered through the leaves of trees, shimmering up and down the terracotta brickwork, like lights on a Sunset Strip casino, calling gamblers to prayer.
Not long ago, only the brown and withered remnants of plants, which had lost their grip on existence, lived on the balcony. Fluttering limply in the wind, death having embraced them. Still rooted there to the past in their plastic flower basket homes, tied securely to the dark brown metal railings, even if they looked as if they could fall, at any minute, onto the children playing down below, like an Acme weight falling onto Wile E. Coyote.
Now though, with the soil toiled, death uprooted and new seeds sown, life had returned to the balcony as the shoots of onions also shimmered in the golden light of Mile End.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that I’m living through a global pandemic.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been lucky enough not to have endured the pain of losing a loved-one to Covid-19? Or maybe it’s because I haven’t had to expose myself to the world that much, these last three months, like all of those brave essential workers on the frontlines?
Perhaps though, and this might be why these current times seem so surreal - seemingly happening and yet not, is that we haven’t seen the usual photojournalistic impressions of death one would have readily expected to have seen employed if this was taking place solely somewhere in Africa.
If this was occurring in an African country, we would have seen gratuitous close-up images of grief and pain. We would have seen black bodies, as props, and as framed morsels packaged nicely in accredited World Press Photo winning compositions for Western consumption. We would have seen lifeless forms, limbs akimbo in piles or bulldozered into mass graves.
The one-way street of Western photo ethics states, quite clearly, that those graphic representations of white bodies in crisis must not stand. White bodies can’t be seen in crisis, as they would if they had higher levels of melanin. It is, of course, difficult to continue to centre whiteness, which photojournalism seems adept at facilitating, via images of white fragility, death, incompetence and Western political ineptness.
So, instead, the pandemic in the West has been told through less potent photographic depictions of empty streets, within portraits of neighbours on porches or found behind the reflections of glass.
To a great extent, no images of death or of loss have permeated the media’s narrative (though some Italian images have filtered through) to reveal the true horrors and true scale of what we are living through. And so, we live in a strange world, one where our governments coerce us, hand in hand with the media, to almost become Covid-19 deniers.
In this light, the reality of the pandemic, that reality which has encompassed the loss of 500,000 souls (and growing) worldwide, goes unrecorded. It goes unregistered on the psyches of those living through this, and as such, the horrors are made unreal and people act accordingly.
Close your eyes and imagine, if you will, an image of a packed British beach or a street outside pubs in Soho, on the day they reopened in the UK.
So, yes, it’s easy to forget that I’m living through a pandemic.
The laughter of Hasidic children, running outside, down beneath my balcony, accompanied by the plants in the flower baskets, often belies the presence of an old, familiar normality. One which calls me willingly back to past times, as the childrens’ shrill notes of joy penetrate my evolving cocoon of reality, from time to time, throughout my hermit-like day.
I still love to tell the story, from a previous trip on this side of the world, of the Hasidic children shouting, en masse, up at the wealthy condo dwellers in the neighbourhood, I see from my balcony: “Poop on the rich! Poop on the rich! Poop on the rich!” Again and again, with great gusto, until a parent came out and rounded them all up.
No, I don’t have documentary evidence of this, no audio, no stills, or video either, for that matter. Besides, I was too enthralled by the moment to record it. Too busy living it to capture it. Too busy laughing, in stunned amazement, at the audacity of these children to attempt to storm the Bastille of gentrification - which the million-dollar condo apartment dwellers had built.
So, now, when I tell the story, people with wry, pinched, polite smiles always ask, “Really, that actually happened?
But it really did. It really happened. Though truth, of course, is a spurious concept.
My mother never took a photograph in all of her 85 years of life, not one. My father neither for that matter. Not once did my parents look through a viewfinder and press a shutter release. I don’t even think that either of them ever touched a camera, in truth, and I wonder how I became a photographer, the one who would take my mother’s last photograph.
I’ve thought about that photograph, about taking it and how it looked, so often since then, even though I’ve never actually looked at it since taking it. Outside of a momentary glance down at the screen on the back of the camera, that is. It wasn’t a great photograph, whatever that means; it was just a moment in time that would soon stop for my mother. Just another digital file in a folder, one to be found inside another folder. One copied multiple times and then housed on multiple harddrives and as well as in the cloud. I trust it’s still there, and have faith that it still is for some reason, but as I said, I haven’t really looked at it. This portrait of an elderly woman waiting to die.
I hadn’t seen her for three months before the moment I took the photograph, and I have written about this fact before. She had forgotten who I was by that point. But before I left her, as my father sat next to her bed in his wheelchair, I took a tightly cropped photograph of them both. Making it look as if both of their heads were resting against each other, just as fate was pulling them further from each other's touch.
I’ve never shown anyone that photograph, not even my dad or my sisters.
I pressed the shutter release, stepping back to take another wider shot, then I put the camera down. That would be the last time I would see mom, as four days later she was gone whilst I was far away again.
What if the image doesn’t resemble my description? My perception of reality falling short? What if their heads aren’t tightly cropped and not actually looking as if they are resting against each other? Finally, what if I’ve imagined all of this, because I said, I haven’t looked at the photograph.
The camera has been a shield for me at times in my life, a place to hide behind rather than a device I’ve ever believed could truly provide me with a ‘truth’. Besides, truths sometimes only come with distance, made via the praxis of time. They sometimes only come with self-delusion, and often they are found when we are trying to hide from that which causes us pain.
Truth is often an imposition; it is also an illusion.
* Insert photograph here*
CreateSpace is a Creative Health CIC project in partnership with Arts Council England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Staffordshire County Council.