Even though the lockdown has almost lifted, the shadow of the pandemic still hangs heavy on this country. How do photographers best respond to what’s been happening?

There have been a variety of approaches, but images of empty streets only get you so far. Donna Bridgewater, a photography teacher from Coventry, has come up with the idea of photographing people on the street with boards, where they write down how they feel about these unprecedented times.

So far she has taken 40 socially-distanced portraits of people in Birmingham, so we caught up with a chat.

Donna Bridgewater

How did the idea come about?
I lost my sister to suidice in 2019 and decided I really wanted to do a project to document and support mental health issues.

I too have struggled myself during the pandemic, and I heard that even before lockdown, there has been a big increase in mental health problems and demand for mental health services. It’s particularly hard for younger people.

Hearing that, and the loss of my sister, inspired me to do the project.

Where did the idea of asking people to write down their feelings on a board come from?
The board idea was something I’d tried a few years ago; my sister was an animal activist, and protesters also use boards in this way, so I took that concept. The board gives people a space and helps them to open up.

The people you approached were strangers, right?
Yes, who I approached from a safe distance – some people didn’t want to get involved but many did. Doing the project attracted a lot of interest, including on social media, so some people knew about me already.

Did you feel shy going up to people in the middle of Birmingham?
It builds your confidence by just doing it, You have to persevere when people say no.

Did people find it hard to write down their feelings?
Via the board, people actually found it easier to get things off their chest – young people in particular. They were struggling with telling people how they were feeling, so it was almost like giving them a platform.

When I approach people, I give them a bit of time to think about what they want to write, rather than putting them under pressure.

A lot of your subjects are under 60… is that just because younger people were happier to take part?
I did shoot a few older people, but yes there have been more younger people happy to get involved. This is still an ongoing project, however, even after the lockdown and the actual pandemic are over.

Mental health issues will continue when things get back to normal, so I hope to get some older people involved too.

How did you go about taking the photos?
I shot at f/3 mainly on my Canon EOS 750D and 70-200mm lens. I tried to get people against uncluttered backgrounds but sometimes I had to clone objects out. The most important thing was to ensure their eyes were in sharp focus and make the most of natural light.

To learn more about Donna, see her website. She is also giving a virtual talk at the RPS on May 17th.

Further reading
How photography can help your mental health.

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