Portrait photography is challenging at the best of times but imagine shooting complete strangers over… Zoom. Portrait photographer Fran Monks talks about her unique project to photograph some of the key negotiators at the COP26 climate-change conference currently taking place in Glasgow

Picture credit: Fran Monks

How did you get the idea for this project and get it off the ground?
I always try to celebrate the under-celebrated in my work, and I used to work as an environmentalist for Shell, so I have long been interested in climate change. I was curious about the people behind the headlines who were actually doing the work at these climate meetings, and that’s what gave me the idea for this series.

I have been photographing people via Zoom since the pandemic began, and so suddenly I had a way to photograph climate negotiators around the world, without contributing to the problem they are trying to solve.

Picture credit: Fran Monks

How did you choose the negotiators and get access to them?
It was difficult to find people at first, but then I came across Professor Benito Müller who runs courses for negotiators around the world, in Oxford every summer with his organisation Oxford Climate Policy. Professor Müller put me in touch with lots of people, and once I started, there was no shortage of volunteers.

What were the particular technical challenges of taking portraits of people on a Zoom call and how did you get around them?
As I mentioned, I have been making portraits via Zoom since March 2020. The difficulties are usually bandwidth and the quality of the camera on their device.

In one instance it took three sessions and five hours to connect and make a picture, and that was mainly because of poor wifi and an old computer. The whole process is very collaborative, and if the subject is on their own it depends on whether there is a conveniently placed shelf or table, so that I can get them to organise the device as I wish.

I use my camera to photograph my screen because I like the way that it introduces artefacts such as the Moiré grid which forms because of how the camera sensor interacts with the screen.

Picture credit: Fran Monks

I also like the way the dark border of my computer screen is reminiscent of darkroom prints.

What camera and lens did you use and why?
I have been using my Leica Q with a fixed 28mm lens. It helps keep everything consistent, very easily.

Picture credit: Fran Monks

Where will the images be used?
The images have been exhibited on the side of the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford as part of Photo Oxford for the duration of COP26. They were also used by the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) on their social media in the run up to the conference. I am still on the look out for further publication opportunities.

About Fran Monks
Fran Monks is a portrait artist who specialises in celebrating the under-celebrated. Since the pandemic began in 2020, Monks has been making portraits via video chat. These images have been published by the BBC and PBS and acquired by the Science Museum, London and the National Portrait Gallery. To see more portraits in this series please visit www.franmonks.com

Further reading
Documenting the impact of climate change