What's your favourite self-isolation activity so far? Maybe you're a sourdough lad now, or you got your housemate to shave off all your hair over the bathroom sink. Or you've just been, y'know, watching Netflix and trying not to be consumed by paralysing fear.
London based-photographer Chris Fernandez, however, is spending his quarantine documenting the activities of his neighbours.
Shortly after the lockdown was announced, he put a sign up in his bedroom window where he lives in east London, that read: “Professional photographer looking to document your isolation from over here. DM me if interested.” Within an hour, he had responses from several neighbours who were eager to be photographed. The photos, of course, would observe the two-metre distance rule as Fernandez would shoot his subjects from his own flat, through their windows.
As well as providing an intimate glimpse into the homes of London dwellers at an unprecedented time, Fernandez says that the project has helped him form new friendships with the people he photographed. He's already hoping that the people in the building opposite his will have a party when the lockdown is over. “In that building, they all have access to a roof and the view up there is insane,” he says.
I spoke to Fernandez about human intimacy – and getting to know your neighbours – in the time of coronavirus.
VICE: Hi Chris! So, what made you want to take photos of your neighbours during self-isolation?
Chris Fernandez: I’ve always wanted to do documentary stuff. My normal work is portraiture – the kind of work you can do whenever, really. So when this [lockdown] happened I was like, "I should try and document it in some way." My original idea was to photograph people waiting in the queue to do their shopping and then I was like, "Look at all these people across the street." The buildings are really close together and you can see in clearly, so I thought I should document the isolation process that everyone’s going through.
Were there any photographers who influenced this project?
All of them [the photos in this series] are kind of staged, but it’s still documentary. There’s a guy called Philip-Lorca diCorcia who has a series called Hustlers. It’s a project about male street prostitutes. He would pay them for the night with the grant given to him by the government, and photographed them in different motels around Hollywood. It was awesome because I think he was one of the first photographers to blur the lines between staged and documentary photography. That influenced me, to a certain degree.
Did you think anyone would reply to the sign you placed in your window?
To be honest, I thought I wasn’t going to do it at all. I thought that people would either get in touch like, “Yeah cool, that’s a good idea” and from then on after, everyone would think I was a weirdo who would just be watching and waiting to catch them off guard. As soon as I put the sign up, it was about an hour or something, and I spoke to one person who was like, "I’ll make a note, stick it downstairs [in their house] and see if anyone else wants to do it."
Tell me more about how you direct the neighbours who responded to the ad and wanted to be photographed.
I had to phone them without seeing their room or how I was going to light it. I wanted it to look as natural as possible. When you’re getting someone to just lie down and pretend to be on their laptop, people ease into it quite naturally. The lighting was probably the hardest part because I’m kind of telling them, "Can you switch that light off and turn that one on," or, "Put your phone over here with the flash on." But all of them were totally up to do whatever. I think that comes down to being in their own space – they’re comfortable.
Were you friendly with any of your neighbours before this?
No, we literally just moved into this flat a couple of months ago. It’s been cool though. Now I keep catching them at the window and they give me a little wave. It’s quite nice, like I’ve already met them in a strange way.
Has anyone been weirded out by the photos?
I have to turn the lights off in my room to take the pictures, because otherwise you get the reflection of my window in the photos. So, I put the camera on a timer because it’s a long exposure and there’s a little red light that bleeps at the front of it. The guy who lives directly across from me hasn’t gotten in touch, but I saw him come into his room and do a double take at my window! I think he thought I was taking pictures of him and he keeps giving me these looks.
Oh, so he definitely thinks you’re a peeping tom now. Has this project taught you anything about human intimacy?
If it’s taught me anything, I think, in situations like this, people become a lot more vulnerable and tend to be open more to intimacy. It’s a pretty odd situation that we’re in.
Do you think lockdown will change the way you work from now on?
I do a lot of different work, photography-wise: commercial and fashion. But now I’m thinking, "What’s the point?" You take pictures of things to sell. I’ve always thought this, it’s not just because of coronavirus, but this has definitely emphasised it.
This kind of thing, I love doing. This is showing people hanging out, but documenting isolation and the times we're living in. It’s crazy to be living through something like this. That’s half the reason I wanted to do it in the first place. My mum works in the NHS and she’s a district nurse. I feel so bad that my work is putting on some lights and taking pictures of some good-looking person. So you can’t really compare it to that. But I think the least I can do is inform and entertain people. I’d be happy with that. After this, if there’s one thing that can come out of it is more work like this.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The photographs from this series are now available to buy as prints here. All proceeds will be donated to the NHS.