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(this is part 1 in our loosely themed COVID photo essay series – if you would like to submit a photo essay, please email us at [email protected])

J Forsyth is a V. TALENTED Australian photographer who I met and befriended a decade ago in Argentina, of all places. She’s been to visit me in Brooklyn, and I am determined to see her in Melbourne one day when all of this (in theory) is all over and done with, but for now, we are both tethered to our respective hemispheres while trying to make sense of the new normal. J has started to incorporate social distancing into her work, taking portraits from afar and documenting daily life around town, so I decided to ask her to take a deep-dive into how Covid-19 has impacted her creative process. You can internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and then head over to Instagram to follow her as she captures this weird, wild time on camera.

For starters, where have you been quarantining/isolating, for how long, and with who?

I have been isolating at home in Collingwood, Melbourne with my housemate Alex for about 4 weeks now. We have been on stage three restrictions for 2 weeks.

How (if at all) has your daily life and routine changed or stayed the same?

I work from home when I’m not out shooting, I like the balance between the alone time and quiet of home and the energy of a shoot whether it’s events or portraits.  

I already have a morning routine, I knew to shower and dress like a normal work day and take breaks blah blah. But I shot my last paid gig a month ago and so the energy I gain and expel at events is just bouncing around in my room with nowhere to go. While on paper it’s a great time to work on submissions and projects, I have spent a lot of time sitting and staring. I am happy if I achieve a couple of hours of productive work each day and super happy with how well my naps are progressing. 

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1 – Window of Gertrude Contemporary – artwork by current Gertrude Studio Artist Sarah Brasier* 2 – Everyone exercises now 3 – Noir Darkroom 'closed'* 4 – Supply run 5 – Closed playground 6 – Diamond Indian & Hungarian cuisine takeaway 7 – Mediterranean Wholesalers. 8 – Delivery instructions . . *Hope in the Dark Artists | Sarah Brasier @sarah_bras, Kiron Robinson, Simon Zoric 'In response to a rapidly changing world – Gertrude presents Hope in the Dark, a street-facing exhibition in the windows at Gertrude Contemporary' @gertrudecontemporary . *Noir Darkroom has created a daily #isolationphotoproject & an online art school, check out their profile @noir_darkroom #massisolationAUS #massisolation

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And how did you feel at the “start” of all of this (ie when restrictions started to come into play) compared to how you feel right now? 

This all became very real for me after returning from Golden Plain music festival on 9 March. A punter was suspected to have it and mild panic set in and I started distancing straight away. I think like a lot of people, I was in shock for a while and started to feel super uncomfortable in any public place for more than a minute or two so it wasn’t hard for me to stop going to bars/restaurants and people’s houses. 

Now I guess I have settled into it. I don’t mind being alone a fair bit, but I don’t love going for walks anymore & I am continuing my daily struggle to be creative or to be kind to myself when I’m not able to be creative or productive. I really am not thinking about the future at all, just each day in blocks of tasks. And I am getting used to answering my phone for non-business related reasons. In my neighbourhood I had three houses of friends nearby, I never thought about how often I popped over to one of them for a wine. 

I know you’ve been doing family portraits for a while, but how and when did you decide to start shooting the social/physical distancing recreations? And how and when did you decide to expand this to broader social/physical distancing portrait recreations? 

Once the initial shock wore off, I had a strong sense of urgency to create while I was still allowed to/was still safe for me and my subjects. The family portraits were first created as a way to capture chosen family in different social moments, sometimes after a few drinks or at an occasion like a birthday/Christmas. 

The very staged nature of them helps incorporate all the subjects into the fun and ownership of the images, instead of them being the subject and me the photographer. Once I realised the social distancing aspect of corona, I wanted to recreate these moments to show what was happening now as it is such a strong contrast. About the same time I realised how interesting it is to interact with my friends during a work day and wanted to capture them in their homes working or adapting to their unemployed lives. I’ve always loved photographing houses and getting a peek inside the window so this fits into that fantasy (maybe not the right word) nicely. I started out in real estate photography (which created my first hand sanitiser addiction) and probably stayed doing it longer than I needed because I loved seeing in the different houses and neighbourhoods. I have been adding in a photo of a more social time I have spent with that person to add to to the contrast.

Also, I have been shooting this project with my digital kit, outside of my commercial practice I usually shoot 35mm film. Obvs I can process the images myself and without expense or contact with anyone else. But I do love shooting film, so I have been taking 1 photo a day on my 35mm point and shoot, when this is all over I will develop the film together and see how my personal isolation story unfolded.

People have mentioned that the experience of isolation has made them feel like reexamining their relationships and be more intentional with the ones they choose to spend time on. Has that come up at all for you in revisiting some of these portraits? 

I have been going through this process in my life for a little while actually. I have had less interest in going out late and more focus on smaller gatherings so this has been an extension of that except that small gathering is on the internets. It has however made me reach out to people I hadn’t’ seen for awhile, who are dear to me and I love that part of it. The physical distance has still created some beautiful moments. I think because myself and the subjects are going through the same experience. It has reaffirmed my love for the people in my life and I am very thankful for them (and their patience with me always taking photos).

How (if at all) does the physical distance affect your process? What are some of the ways (if any) that you have to approach portraits differently with spatial restrictions factored in?

I have found the experience more intimate even though the physical distance is greater, perhaps because I feel more vulnerable out in the world. I am always pretty aware of what’s going on around me, so that hasn’t changed. But the physical contact of a hug hello and a chat has changed into a chat from the street outside, a few quick snaps and I’m out. I actually love doing things really quickly so that part is working for me.

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Portraits of social distancing . Greta @great_party Greta recently returned from an LA holiday. The first half was fun, the second half not so much. The NBA, museums, movie studios, galleries etc were all shut down, by the time they left the city was in stay-in-place mode. On top of that the Australian government announced our borders were closing. . Greta is in self-isolation for a few more days, I helped ease the pain by delivering sparking wine. She works for the state government as a project administrator and I'm a little jealous of the beautiful garden view from her home office window. . The last photo was taken at Greta's 30th birthday/Photog exhibition @thecurtin . . A couple of weeks ago, I started documenting my friends at their homes – from outside at distance without any physical contact. Some are working from home, others are now unemployed. I am pairing the images with pre-corona photos. At the end I will revisit the subjects for post-corona shots . . #isolation #socialdistancing #physicaldistancing #coronavirus #togetherisolation #covid19australia #australia #melbourne #selfisolation #covid_19 #australianphotographyawards #abcnews #minimalzine #stayathome #stayhomeportrait #potraitsofisolation #massisolationaus #massisolation #massisolationAUS #massisolation #ICPconcerned

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Do you notice any major differences in how people sit for portraits in the midst of the pandemic compared to how they might’ve before all this? Has there been any shift in the tone of a shoot?

There is a greater seriousness for sure but also a warmth, I don’t feel like I’m imposing, even though the shots may suggest otherwise ha. I guess also, the brief is clear, I’m photographing you at home, during mostly work hours at a super weird time in our lives, pose accordingly.  

Your photos of Uncle Jack Charles in his window are great; how did you organize that shoot, and what was it like to sort of “direct” that from such a big distance? 

A friend of mine works with Uncle Jack, and suggested it. She checked with him and when he agreed passed on his number. We arranged a time and I text him when I was on the oval outside. We chatted a little via text about his isolation and the elderly community he is surrounded by. It was really lovely to be able to connect with him while he is in isolation. 

For the photo – He has such a strong presence that I got the shot almost straight away but I enjoyed it so much I took a bunch more shots. I have always loved the tower blocks so this was a great combo for me. 

I am hoping to extend the series with Uncle Jack and the surrounding residence, get to know a few of his neighbours in a similar way and hopefully continue the series when we are out of Iso. I love hanging out with older people. I’m the friend at a wedding who sits with old Aunty Methel and chats for an hour. 

You’ve also been shooting daily life around town; obviously we can look at the photos to gain some perspective, but is there anything that’s been especially interesting or surprising to you about how things have changed and/or stayed the same?

I stopped walking anywhere and was only driving which is odd for me and started photographing people in a ‘street style’ more than I had for years. At the start I was a little uneasy about how it looked very ‘business as usual’; I took photos from my car window because I didn’t want to be outside. But that has changed now, as have the restrictions. The last morning walk I went on, everyone struggled to smile, looked a little cranky and a little greasy from a long weekend inside their apartments. Made me feel better, is that bad? 

Oh and now of course I can’t pass a person in a mask without taking a photo, cliche but compelling!

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Preston Market, 16 April 2020

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And finally, obviously nobody knows when things will go back to “normal”, or what “normal” will even look like, but (and it may be too soon to say) how do you think this experience will leave an imprint on you as a photographer (and/or a general person) once we’re able to move on from it? 

That’s a good question. It has reaffirmed in me how important photographic documentation is for me but for the wider community. It is so powerful and necessary and beautiful even when it’s not meant to be. It has sparked my interest in street photography again and really pushed me to keep working on portraits of those around me, regardless of what they do or where they live, they all have stories I want to tell. 

It has also made me think about what photography means in my work life, do I want a commercial practice and an arts practice or maybe just art? As a freelancer who has no paid work right now like so many others, these questions will keep circulating. I don’t know what answer I will come up with, but I think the question has been under the surface for a while and now I have the time to work through it. What I have already learnt is I am very driven by the need to document the world around me and when I don’t take photos I get a little weird…Outside of the photos I take, the work created around this time is so extremely powerful and will shape art and media for a long time to come.

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