Coronavirus: Strange days in east London

Photographer Spencer Murphy talks about the pictures he has been taking during the lockdown caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

A few days before the UK went into coronavirus lockdown, I took the car to a neighbouring district of London to try and pick up some shopping.

As I drove, Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World came on the radio, and at that moment I found myself passing by three people wearing protective masks and gloves: a mother and child waiting at a bus stop, and a teenager on a bike performing a peddle wheelie as he rode by in the other direction, I turned to my wife to comment and she had tears in her eyes.

It was one of the most surreal and cinematic experiences of my life, and I knew then that I had to try and document these strange days.

Man in a mask with his shopping

I have found myself taking pictures of the people and the paraphernalia that feel so symbolic of the Covid-19 pandemic. I want the images to feel as though you are moving through the city, as if viewed from a moving vehicle – brief snatches of life amid a crisis – as I was on that initial day.

Responding to life outside my window is a familiar way of working for me, so this seemed like a natural reaction but one I didn’t take lightly.

Sign advertising masks for sal
Playground

I understand that people out there are feeling anxious and vulnerable, and I have friends who work within the NHS who have made great personal sacrifices. So I have tried to make the work whilst out on my daily walks and rides, whilst maintaining and respecting safe distance and limiting myself to the outside world. It’s been hard but also life-affirming and nice to maintain some form of human contact albeit in the briefest of moments, from six feet away and behind masks.

Woman wearing a mask

Before the pandemic hit I was making my first moving image documentary about a community in east London, which I was halfway through, and has been cut short for now. It’s interesting to see how communities have thrived under these restrictions and how neighbours who were strangers are now closer than ever, even though they are socially distant.

Watching human behaviour change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, has been at once inspiring and unsettling. The effects of this crisis will be felt for generations, and I hope the lessons we learn stay with us in more carefree days to come.

Here is a selection of pictures form the project:

Hand holding walking stick
People sitting outside their homes
Man in a mask
Man with his dog
Public bench
Woman wearing a face shield
Woman wearing a mask
Face mask
Man in a mask
Rainbow painting in a window

Strange Days is an ongoing project documenting this time. You can follow along on a dedicated site Spencer has set up: www.strangedays2020.com

You can see more of Spencer’s work at: www.spencermurphy.co.uk