Photographer uses Skype to create portraits of people quarantining at home

·5 min read
Fran Monks's Skype portraits capture isolated people at home. (Photo: Courtesy of Fran Monks)
Fran Monks's Skype portraits capture isolated people at home. (Photo: Courtesy of Fran Monks)

Quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic has sent countless folks flocking to social media and telecommunications tools to help them stay connected, virtually, at least, to loved ones. It’s also inspired one U.K. photographer to capture those living in isolation — through the medium of Skype.

Fran Monks, a photographer based in Oxford, England, is known for her fine art portraits, but the U.K.’s police-enforced lockdown policies have resulted in work drying up. But while Monks, who is herself quarantining at home with her husband and three children, can no longer get out to meet with her subjects, the unique lockdown situation has presented an opportunity to still document the lives of others, albeit via a computer or smartphone.

“From about two weeks before lockdown started, all my commissioned portraits started being postponed,” Monks tells Yahoo Life. “I realized something extraordinary was happening and people were already self-isolating at home and social distancing generally, and so I thought I should use my skills as a portrait photographer to try and document what was happening.”

Though Monks has long been toying with the idea of taking portraits via Skype, the telecommunication app which acts as a phone and video call service, the constraints of lockdown prompted her to take action on the project. Now, rather than meeting clients in person, she’s connecting with them on Skype, then shooting their portraits with her Leica Q camera — her own image staring back at her in the top right corner of the screen.

The owner of a restaurant closed during lockdown posed for Monks over Skype. (Photo: Fran Monks)
The owner of a restaurant closed during lockdown posed for Monks over Skype. (Photo: Fran Monks)

Recognizing the demand for video chats via Skype, FaceTime and Zoom while people were physically separated from their friends and family, Monks started by photographing those in her social circle who were quick to self-isolate: an immunocompromised friend, another friend’s daughter quarantining after visiting a virus hot spot. She then found volunteers — some acquaintances, some total strangers — on social media, and the rest is history.

While Monks says she normally prefers to be “much more in control” in terms of staging her portraits, the Skype series are less hands-on in more than one.

Monks's own image appears in the top right corner of the shot. (Photo: Fran Monks)
Monks's own image appears in the top right corner of the shot. (Photo: Fran Monks)

“It's quite refreshing to just accept the accidents,” says Monks, who asks her subjects to give her a mini virtual tour of their space before settling on a position based on the light or the objects in view. Pixelation can occur because of bandwidth issues, and web cams can make it tricky to find a good angle, but Monks ultimately uses her Leica to photograph her screen once the shot is set up. And she doesn’t try to disguise the fact that Skype was involved.

“I decided to keep the black border around the screen because it looks a little like the border on a dark room print from a negative,” she explains. “That's funny because these images have so many digital layers to them, that they are quite the opposite of analog prints. I really like the way artifacts appear on the screen when I shoot the image. Also the buttons from the video call are sometimes visible, and my image is up in the top right corner. All these just give the viewer clues about how these are not typical photographs.”

A woman living in Spain is among those taking part in the Skype series. (Photo: Fran Monks)
A woman living in Spain is among those taking part in the Skype series. (Photo: Fran Monks)

Despite the technological challenges, connecting with others — some of whom had never used Skype before the project — and sharing their stories has given Monks new appreciation for her work.

“I think the most moving story so far was Ricky in Australia, who had been house-bound for 20 years and bed-bound for much of that,” she says. “She was saying how wonderful it was that so much was now happening online and she was already dreading people going back out into the world again, and that not happening so much.”

She adds that she “cannot wait to get back out to meet people in the real world and make images that way,” as well as make a living. But while the lockdown — which on Thursday was extended by the British government to at least three more weeks — continues, Monks is relishing her Skype portraits.

“Although we are rightly celebrating the contribution of all the key workers during the virus, all the people at home are making their own sacrifices and I wanted to recognize that,” she tells Yahoo Life. “People are quite happy to give their time, and make a connection. It's quite a fun thing to do.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, some families are taking part in porch portraits, in which they are photographed from a safe distance while self-isolating at home.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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