COVID-19 lockdown through the lens of woman photographers living across the world

From India's migrant crisis to personal experiences of working from home and spending time with family, these women documented it all.
Photo by Iman Al-Dabbagh
Photo by Iman Al-Dabbagh
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The year 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown, was a historic one to say the least. The year changed the way we lived, locked inside our homes, but it also changed our understanding of life, our priorities and also our art. An online session organised by City Scripts 2021, a festival by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), featured women photographers from across the world showcasing their work done during the period of the lockdown. The series of images shared during the session showed a slice of life during the lockdown, as experienced by women photographers. 

Called “Photos and Conversations: From the Intimate to the Streets: Documenting Our Lives and Cities During COVID-19 with The Journal Collective”, the two-hour-long session that premiered on February 25 presented a vivacious range of photographs taken by artists such as Samyukta Lakshmi (India), Uma Bista (Nepal), Nyimas Laula (Bali), Watsamon June Tri-yasakda (Bangkok), Liliana Merizalde Gonzalez (Bogotá), Iman Al-Dabbagh (Jeddah) and Brooke Herbert (USA). All artists who presented their work are part of The Journal Collective, a global photography collective of several hundred women photographers. 

In many cases, women experienced lockdown differently than men. It meant more housework, staying locked in with abusive partners for some, and for others, losing freedom on pretext of ‘safety’. The pandemic was experienced differently by people living across the world. While for someone living in India, the months of April and May saw the migrant crisis, for someone in America, the Black Lives Matter movement was significant during the same period. While COVID-19 lockdown norms were relaxed in India by October, in Thailand, the month saw several anti-government protests. 

The City Scripts session brought out snippets from different corners of the world, as seen through the lens of these women photographers. The photographs ranged from journalistic to personal, from a journey on the outside to the inside. But more importantly, it was a way for women photographers to come to terms with the tumultuous period.

Liliana Merizalde Gonzalez, a Colombian documentary photographer and visual artist based out of Bogotá, explained that her work is like a journey across the ways in which her journalist and photographer selves have integrated the ‘new normal’. “It is related to the mental process I went through and how I coped with it by means of photography,” she says. Starting with an intimate image of her 93-year-old grandmother holding a young potted plant, Liliana’s work was split in four chapters. It showed the artist seeking an outlet to all that was building up inside her as a response to all that was going on around her.  

Photo by Liliana Merizalde Gonzalez

It was not just Liliana who worked in this way, but the other women photographers too. Take for instance Nyimas Laula, an Indonesian photojournalist who logged in from Bali. Nyimas explained that the COVID-19 pandemic gave her a chance to look at herself for a change. “COVID-19 pandemic for me strongly felt more real when I’m inside my own space. As a photojournalist who always puts others’ voice before my own, there was an awkwardness, a reluctance to point the camera to myself, to tell a story about me, as someone who was affected by the pandemic,” she writes about her project titled ‘Inside’. 

Photo by Nyimas Laula

In some of the artists’ work, children were also featured. The pandemic presented artists such as Uma Bista, a photographer based in Kathmandu, Nepal, an opportunity to spend time with family, to observe the little things in life and to explore herself internally. Uma’s work is on family relationships, bonding with her nieces and of how children tend to escape reality. Iman Al-Dabbagh, a Saudi-Palestinian-Armenian photographer based in Jeddah, documented time with her young daughter who was home and taking online classes due to the pandemic as well.  

Photo by Uma Bista

But there were those who took to the streets to work on a more journalistic approach. Bengaluru-based Samyukta Lakshmi’s work on the migrant crisis in the country is an astounding record of what is called one of the biggest human exoduses in the country since the Partition. Samyukta’s photographs capture a state of mass uncertainty from the time when the migrant crisis was at its peak in the country, during the months of April and May 2020. The migrant crisis in India was caused due to the government's ill-advised sudden announcement of the lockdown, giving the migrant workers no time to gather their wits. This prompted many to simply walk home in droves on highways, in the scorching summer heat with little or no resources. 

Another photographer who made an important journalistic documentation of the period in her country is Watsamon June Tri-yasakda, a photographer and visual storyteller born and based in Bangkok, Thailand. Watsamon June aka June presented an interesting month-wise documentation of all that happened in Thailand in 2020: from heat wave fears in March to Thailand’s LGBTQ+ community and anti-government protesters joining together for demonstrations in November. As someone who’s more into photographing lifestyle and culture in her country, June shares that the lockdown gave her an opportunity to experience protests first hand. “Last year because of the lockdown, I did not get as many assignments. This was my first time to experience what it was like to be on the field, at a protest. With tear gas and everything,” she said.  

Photo by Samyukta Lakshmi

Brooke Herbert from the United States of America documented the Black Lives Matter movement that peaked right around the time when the pandemic too was at its highest. Brooke also shot images of the forest fires that ravaged parts of west America. 

What was most interesting about all of the works displayed, was how they seemed similar yet continued to present varied experiences of women living across the world. Elaborating on it, Brooke says, “With the personal imagery, it was so interesting to see our work together. There were so many themes that I kept seeing being repeated, even by those living in completely different places across the world.”

“When you’re covering bigger issues during the pandemic - the protests or the migrant crisis… I was really sure of being cognisant in making sure I didn’t, especially while covering Black Lives Matter protests, I was careful in not showing that ‘all protestors are like this,’ like one monolith. That was hard to do. I did not want the pictures to be about my gaze but about the experience of the protestors,” Brooke adds. 

Liliana sums it up perfectly. “In the end, collective experiences are closely related. I think during this time of confinement, going inward is a personal experience, and it is also a collective experience that we are all living separately. Yes, all of these images are representations of what we as humanity are living through,” she said.

Watch the full session here:

All photographs used in this article are screenshots taken from the session video posted on IIHSChannel's YouTube.

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