Fran Monks is doing her best to help me.
The British photographer is guiding me on how to set the scene for her to take a portrait inside my home while I’m on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. We’re video conferencing over our computers, trying to find the right light and background for the photo.
Monks is getting an inside look of my home through my laptop camera, but I do not show her the dishes sitting in the sink from lunch. We move to the living room and settle on a spot on the couch, below three hand-drawn nature scenes.
My laptop’s camera, however, is positioned on the bottom of the screen. No matter how many thick art books I put under my computer, it doesn’t get rid of the view of the keyboard. We laugh at how massive it looks when I sit down on the couch for the portrait, and I pretend I’m typing at an oversized computer.
But it’ll have to do.
Monks takes the shot, capturing what the image looked like on her computer screen. (In the top-right corner of the resulting photo, you can see a tiny Monks holding up her camera.)
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many in-person activities — meetings, birthdays, weddings, funerals, regular friend hang-outs — to move online. Like so many others, that has impacted Monks’ work, as photography opportunities dried up as social distancing orders took hold in Oxford, where she’s located.
In an effort to work with the new circumstances amid the pandemic, she started a new photo series that captures different people in different moments of isolation as the novel coronavirus spreads worldwide. Mainly using Skype, she snaps portraits of people inside their homes, after hearing their stories.
Pre-pandemic, Monks would be in the same space as her subject. But now, she’s having to make the same assessments — and maintain some semblance of intimacy — from afar. This is a photographer, after all, who had to halt an ongoing photo project about hugging — an act of supreme physical connection.
Monks started #TheHug Project in October, a photo series that aimed to bring people, who disagreed with one another, closer together — literally, with a hug. Monks wrote on her website that it was her way of reacting to the polarization she saw online. “The hug might create a pause [in the disagreement between the subjects] that would spark a new idea or a change of course. Just maybe.”
I spoke with Monks on the types of stories she’s heard through her new project, how she’s faring while self-isolating, and who she isn’t able to Skype.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you doing?
All things considered, I’m doing good. I have three kids at home. My husband’s a journalist, so he can work from home. He’s doing a lot of radio and writing from home. And my photography jobs have all been postponed, which is why I decided to embark on a bit of a project. We live in the middle of Oxford, which is usually packed full of students and tourists. And all of those people have gone. So, in fact, when we go out for a daily walk, it’s quite beautiful. I have lots of friends who are health care workers, and they have to — they’re having such a tough time. I feel that staying at home is nothing by comparison. So I’m fine.
When you have conversations with your family and friends and photo subjects, does that question — ‘How are you doing?’ — take on a new meaning during this time?
Definitely, I mean, you have to sort of consider that some of the minor inconveniences that we might have — [are] nothing compared to what some people are having to do. I do have my concerns. I have a father in a care home. That’s a big worry for me. And I have a niece and a nephew who are both on the front line and caring. A doctor and a nurse. So I’m not saying I’m without worries, but our personal situation, I feel — it’s the least we can do to stay home. So, it’s fine.
Can you tell me how this photo project started?
It was actually a week or two before we had locked down here. There was a period of time when everything started changing really quickly.
The children were still going to school, and everything was getting canceled. There was this two-week period when suddenly, everything that was coming up stopped happening. And there were already people who were having to self-isolate because they had symptoms. I think the instruction was, “If you’ve got a cough and a fever, please, you, just stay at home.” And then it became, “You and your family must stay at home.” And then gradually, it became social distancing. And so that was all happening in the background. I started then, at that point, thinking, “Oh, it would be interesting to photograph people who are self-isolating or social distancing. You know, wouldn’t that be interesting to just photograph someone who is far away, in that way?
At first, I would have people holding their phones, and I would just take their pictures. I’d be thinking about the light and the composition. But then, I realized it was interesting to get them to put the device on the other side of the room somewhere and did more of an environmental portrait, which would be less … like someone who was Skyping so much as, O.K., this is a portrait that’s being composed. But it’s very much a collaboration. You have to sort of work together to try and get the device in the right place.
Can you walk me through what you’re looking for in your portraits? How are you looking to fill the frame?
I ask people to show me around their rooms, and then I want to have side light. And I want to try and capture some of the environment. And beyond that, I have to be much less perfectionist than I would normally be because I would be trying to frame — I quite like simple backgrounds and not too many distractions — but you can’t do that. Some of them are not at all what I had intended, but they tell a story. I think by making them more environmental, you’re just getting more of the story out of the portrait. And for me, the portrait is about trying to get the person to relax a bit so that you can capture the real person. And people are always a bit surprised when I actually lift up the camera because I think they’re expecting me to just take a screenshot or something. But I love the way that when I use the camera, it sometimes gives strange and unexpected effects on the screen. So it just adds to it.
So you’re actually using your camera still by taking a photo of what is appearing on your computer screen?
I actually hadn’t realized that either.
The black around the screen makes it kind of a bit of a frame, like you would get on an old-fashioned print.
What was the first portrait that you did in the series, and how did you reach out to that person?
The first person was someone who I knew. She is immunosuppressed. And so, she was very early self-isolating. I think the people who had to self-isolate early felt quite isolated because, you know, everyone wasn’t home yet. And so, she was very happy to take part and help me to get going with the project. But quite quickly, it took off.
And in fact, one of the early ones was almost the most moving so far, which was a woman in Australia who had been housebound for 20 years, and bedbound for a lot of that. And she was describing how incredible it was to have everybody suddenly come online and everything to be happening online. I mean, obviously, there was a lot happening online, but suddenly it was like the whole world was there. And she felt she could participate.
For example, here I was calling from Oxford, photographing her in Melbourne, Australia. She was really loving that, and she was already saying she was worrying about when everyone was going to go back out into the real world and not be there anymore. But she felt, “Oh, suddenly, people will understand, a little bit, my life.”
Any other noteworthy stories you’ve come across?
I’ve really enjoyed, in particular, working with some of the people who were not familiar with the technology. One woman in Edinburgh — I basically phoned her on the landline and talked her through using FaceTime. And as a result of that, she’s now FaceTiming with her family every day. That really felt great.
And now, I’m enjoying talking to people who are completely on their own because, you know, that is really hard. And people seem to really enjoy that as well; it’s like a window to the world for them to have me call up. And I’m used to sort of saying, “Oh, I’m sorry that I’m taking up your time.” And people are like, “Don’t worry! I’ve got loads of time! Take your time!”
I photographed two young women in Italy, one who actually had coronavirus as I photographed her. You could sort of tell from talking to her the trauma she was going through. She was just describing the fact that, at that time, if you were over 70, you just weren’t admitted to a hospital in Italy. And she’s a young woman who is about to graduate. In fact, she graduated online the following week after I spoke to her. She was working on her dissertation, her thesis, just trying to finish her degree while suffering from the virus. It was a really interesting insight into one of the many ways in which people’s lives would be affected and put on hold.
How many stories do you intend to document?
I’m going to keep going. My motivation was to document this really extraordinary time, and hopefully there’s never going to be another period in history when everyone is at home like this. And so I thought this is one way to document what’s happening and just telling these stories. And it is really interesting to talk to people all over the world, who are all at different stages.
Is there a common thread among these stories?
There is one thing. There is. And it’s that realization that everyone seems to be going through that, it’s not just about me and my family. In the case of my father — it’s not about me and him and my relationship. Because if it was, I would still want to see him because I would think he’s at the end of his life anyway. It’s that realization that we all have to do this because of trying to protect our health [care system]. So it’s beyond the individual. And I think everyone is realizing that they’re having to do something that’s for everyone, for the greater good.
We’ve talked about people’s environments, but I can’t stop staring at the painting in the back.
I have three brothers and a sister. And one of my brothers is an artist. And he painted that of me.
How long ago was the painting?
Well, it’s a painting of a photograph, actually. He must’ve painted it about 25 years ago. But the picture is about 45 years old.
How old are you in that photo?
I think 3 or 4. I was the youngest of five. My entire family went away on holiday without me. And they came back, and put that hat on me. And they said, “Let’s take a picture.” I don’t know if you can see my expression, but I’m really unimpressed.
They left me with family, friends, because I was too much bother. You know, that was the 1970s. I don’t think people see that kind of thing now. I seemed to have coped.
(laughs) I was gonna ask! You don’t seem too happy. Sorry, I just knew that painting had a story. It’s been a month since the outbreak was officially declared as a pandemic. How has your daily life changed?
There were a couple of weeks of everything being canceled. Everything. Everyone was really stressed. And then the schools closed two weeks ago for us. And we didn’t know day to day whether the schools were going to close. Actually, three and a half weeks ago was when my father’s care home closed and said no more visitors. That was when it really struck me what was happening.
What’s been the most difficult part?
That, that. My father. I usually go and see him once a month because he lives about two hours away. And I realized I really need to go, like, now. Tomorrow. I need to go because I just have this feeling things were going to start changing. And I called them before I left and I said, “You are still open, aren’t you?” And they said, “Yeah, of course, we’re still open.”
And then, by the time I got there two hours later, they said, “Actually, we’re not accepting any visitors,” but because I phoned, they said, “O.K., you can come in.” And that’s the last time I saw him.
And that’s really hard because I can’t communicate with him other than going and, you know, holding his hand and chatting to him, talking to him for a little while. I can’t phone him. We tried Skyping. He can’t really engage with the screen. So that’s been the hardest bit.
My dad is a big deal [to me]. But the other things, you know, all the kids’ plays and performances and everything that were canceled, you feel kind of this cumulative sadness. But then, if it’s saving lives, then that’s fine. That’s fine.
What would be the first thing you do when this is all over?
Oh! I just can’t wait to hug my friends. Well, going to see my dad, and have some hugs.