This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.
“Make something out of nothing” is an age-old adage, but it’s rare that art spawns from a vacuum. For the majority of creators, work has to come from something, and inspiration is often sparked by a new something—a new place, new subjects, new things.
While much about the experience of living on earth during the COVID-19 pandemic is new for the majority of its residents, the novelty is not necessarily inspirational: For those of us at home, most of what we see each day hardly changes, with the same walls surrounding us day after day. The streets may be there, but their difference is emptiness, not additive in nature. So for our Means of Production issue, we asked writers and photographers from around the world to share what they are producing out of their limited lives, to show what they are creating in an environment that is so different in its sameness. What they sent back are photos that are arresting in their mundanity (a trick of light, a simple still life), and in what they lack—the regular physical connection that makes us all feel whole and human. Instead, they remind us of another old saying, “something out of nothing”’s twin flame: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Dayna Evans, Paris, April 10
Confinement in France began on March 17 after a televised address from President Emmanuel Macron, during which he repeated several times, “We are at war.” By that point, we already felt like we lived in the future—seeing our friends in America go out to bars and restaurants was scary for us in the way I’m sure it was scary for residents of Wuhan and Milan to see the French do the same only a week or two prior. Since Macron’s speech, the rules of confinement have gotten more strict every week. There is no more outdoor exercise during the day, and we’re not allowed to leave without having filled out an “Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire” that details why we’re leaving and where we’re going. We used to have to handwrite them but thankfully they figured out a way for us to fill them out digitally. I haven’t been stopped by police yet, but I try to only go out jogging early in the morning so there are fewer people to run into. The rest of the days are spent inside, bouncing between our small bedroom to our small living room to our small kitchen, doing elaborate and distracting baking projects and watching hours of Mad Men. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to how quiet the streets are.
Claudia Zalla, Milan, April 1–April 28
The first week of lockdown, I always felt drowsy. I’d try to read or watch a movie but systematically fell asleep, regardless of the time of day or night. I felt as if my body had sensed a drastic change and was trying to protect me; it was preparing to transition from a frenetic lifestyle to softer moments made of simple, however necessary, actions.
I had prepared long to-do lists, which due to laziness or little time on my hands I used to always postpone; then I found myself installing a ceiling lamp that had been abandoned in its box for months, and I Marie Kondo–ed my sock drawer and wardrobe.
It’s these simple, however necessary, actions that led me to start a visual diary: a collection of still life shots that through straightforward objects narrate my daily experience; days made of goals deemed banal on the surface though already part of a routine that didn’t make me feel useless anymore.
For hours on end, I would observe the sunlight moving inside my house. I found closure in watching the 8 a.m. sun rays touch the chair in my bedroom, or noticing how the building in front of my window mirrors the afternoon light, going through the leaves of my balcony’s jasmine tree and casting funny shadows on the living room walls.
I miss nature, in each of its forms, and more than anything I miss the freedom of getting in touch with it on my own terms. But I miss having a drink with my friends, too, or dinner, and my family and my boyfriend, who live in another region. Situations and faces I used to take for granted have today become my biggest wish.
I’m not sad today, maybe just a bit worried about what comes “next.” I just want to roll up my sleeves and try to embrace the learnings I’m gaining from this surreal moment, hoping it’ll work.
Eda Yu, Los Angeles, April 7
The COVID-19 breakout has shown me a lot of things: the failure of American leadership, how easily Western healthcare systems can be overwhelmed, the blessing of human touch, how much the Internet can bring people together (since we focus so much on its tearing people apart), and the things we take for granted until they’re gone. For me, those things show up as the freedom to run to the store and grab something I forgot to buy for my dinner recipe, or hitting up a friend when I’m bored and want to hang out, and as big as questioning my worth as a journalist if I’m not writing anything COVID-related.
Ka Xiaoxi, Shanghai, January–April
Everybody was ready to celebrate Chinese New Year. Just one or two days before this, the COVID-19 virus began to burst out all over China. We had to cancel all the plans of going out and gathering. Staying at home for a month and a half without stepping out of the community. People were increasingly dying every day at that time; we were totally trapped in the dark and didn’t know the future.
Everyone became a good cook, and cared about family, friends, and people around. All of a sudden, it seems I understand a better meaning of life, what is important and what is not.
Theodore Afrika, Cape Town, April 22–29
Lockdown has been an interesting experience—to see what’s going on in the world around us. Our creative sides have come to life; we are getting to spend so much time with ourselves. This will change us—it is changing us.
Francisco Garcia, London, April 17
One of the main things lockdown has confirmed is just how clearly delineated the day-to-day geography of my life has been for the past few years, mostly out of choice. I live as I imagine most of us with the privilege to do so really live, in a narrowly idiosyncratic maze of familiar places, routes, people. The first week was a shock, as it meant the continuation of the first two, without most of the third. I’ve tried to relegate video calls to a minimum, as they don’t seem to me worthwhile enough to mitigate their built-in, stilted anxiety. Mostly I keep them to work, a weekly chat with close friends, and the occasional family catchup.
To be honest, I’m a lucky man. I live near enough to the same bit of semi-suburban South East London I’ve always called home, full of scenic (now sadly shuttered) cemeteries and a more than ample amount of public greenery. The general mood is strange, but how could it really be anything else? I miss the theoretically limitless possibilities of social life, even if I miss its predictability even more. I’m getting through my reading list and making headway with my work, which I’m also very thankful to have enough of. My partner is a big part of my continuing sanity, and as the weeks bleed into probable months, it’s good to know that I’ll always have someone else to subject to my cooking. The nights are the weirdest part of the day. Things weren’t built to be so quiet around here—when did anyone have the time to stop and stare up at the stupid pink moon poking through the increasingly full looking trees? Most of all, I’m increasingly alarmed at how sentimental all this isolation is making me.
Ashwin Rodrigues, New York, April 8
I’d been working for VICE for less than a month before we were instructed to work from home, which I’d already been doing for roughly two years as a freelancer. Obviously, now it feels much different. My usual “treats,” like going to the gym during lunchtime, or grocery shopping at off hours, are no longer available. And it could be my imagination, but there’s a delirious tinge to everyone’s communication, in both my personal and professional exchanges.
Like most people, my family has already lost someone in our orbit to COVID-19, so I’m just grateful to have my health and a job for now, especially in New York. My work can be done on the phone and on a computer, so the only workflow issues are the ones in my brain.
Now is an especially chilling time to write about anything tangentially related to death, but it also feels hyper-relevant. I’ve wanted to give the story of ghost bikes more light, and hope that, if and when things calm down in New York, people will be able to take a moment to reflect on these reminders of death that are parked all over the city, especially when the steps to curb those losses seem much more easy to grasp than what we’re currently dealing with.
Yoshinori Mizutani, Tokyo, April 4–May 5
COVID-19 has affected my regular routine, which was going out to take pictures in Tokyo, which I cannot do now. My life has changed dramatically. Now I have been reorganizing my archive, which I always meant to but didn’t, and trying to make the days pass while staying home with my wife. I feel frustrated by not being able to live the everyday life that used to be normal and I hope that the world will be safe, secure, and “normal,” again.