Stories

Portraits, from a distance

Isolated from her partner and friends due to the coronavirus outbreak, Michelle Sank’s daily walk takes her round the streets near her home in Exeter. Here her words and images give glimpses into lives continuing under the shadow of COVID-19.

Words and photography by Michelle Sank

  • Photo story
A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows an adult wearing a furry yellow Honey Monster costume, including a red tracksuit top and blue tracksuit bottoms standing in a residential road with red brick houses beyond. The Honey Monster is holding a large black and white dog facing away from camera. The image on the right shows a section of the ground floor of a red brick house with a white PVC door and window with net curtains. On the brick wall surrounding the window there is a large chalk drawing of a stick person with Covid-19 written above it. Beneath the window is written ‘stay home’.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

Since 16 March 2020 I have been isolating from both my partner and my social group, and as a way of dealing with the situation, I decided to document how people are negotiating private and public spaces during the COVID-19 outbreak. I worked within the areas of Burnthouse and Glasshouse Lanes in Exeter, which are where I take my daily walks.

I have been drawn to how people of all ages are adapting to this new way of being, and how their relationships to each other and to the spaces themselves are unfolding. There has been a real sense of wonderment in these chance encounters, which often occur in moments of absolute quiet and solitude. Hearing people’s experiences has added another level of understanding and poignancy to the evolving story of my local area.

Working with this new physical distance, of which I’m constantly mindful, has challenged my photographic practice. Being that bit further away has resulted in a new methodology, where the individual and surrounding background work together in a closer way.

Alongside the people, the house facades and accompanying objects I’ve discovered have taken on a new sense of relevance. Although these pairings of people with spaces are not directly connected, they help me to give additional meaning to the portraits and the period we’re living through. Religious icons, empty chairs and floral memorials have all become symbolic references to both the presence and fragility of life and death in these unsettling times.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a yellow brick garden wall on which a long shadow of a tree and its branches are cast. The image is taken from the road and shows a concrete path and handrail to the left, and a small patch of grass verge to the right. The image on the right shows a paved area with a wooden bench. Beyond that is a concrete path with a handrail between a lawn strewn with daisies, leading to a small grey bungalow. On the paved area in the foreground stands a tall elderly woman looking off to the left wearing blue trousers, a light blue short sleeved shirt, and gardening gloves. She is also wearing small round sunglasses, and has short grey/purple fluffy hair
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

23/04/2020 12:35pm

Rona is 88 years old and when I came across her she told me that it was the first time she had been out of her flat in six weeks. She was reading a women’s magazine on a bench. I admired her elegance and poise and she told me she had been a model – in fact, a ‘mother of the bride’ model for a well-known shop in Exeter. She had suffered a heart attack when she was in her 50s and after that had become a long-distance walker. She has to be really careful now with COVID-19 and therefore doesn’t venture out much, but fortunately has a daughter who lives locally and brings her food.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a young man with his hair shaven at the sides and a short trimmed beard. He has an eyebrow piercing, and is wearing white trainers, shorts and a t-shirt. He is standing in a residential road facing the camera holding a hedge trimmer.  Behind him is a tall privet hedge neatly trimmed half way along. The image on the right shows the ground floor of a red brick house with a white PVC window with net curtains. In front of the house are green plants in small raised beds. In the window there is a small painterly picture of Jesus.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

01/05/2020 12:13pm

Kyle has cystic fibrosis. His job is in a packing warehouse, but as he is very vulnerable he cannot be at work. His mother said they had moved down to this area in the South West as it was better for his health. I remarked that he looked very well and he said that his mother makes sure to look after him and prepare healthy food. He felt frustrated at the moment with the lack of structure in his life because of the virus, and didn’t know when he could return to work.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a young woman wearing a white shayla, fashionable black sunglasses, and a blue smock and matching trousers. She is standing on a neat green lawn around the edge of which is a freshly prepared flowerbed filled with red geraniums. The woman stands, facing camera, with her hands on hips. At her feet, are several geraniums ready for planting. Behind her is a brown wooden fence and blue sky. The image on the right shows the ground floor of a red brick house with a white PVC door and a small square window. On the lawn in front of the window is a lettered funeral tribute made of white flowers, which reads sister.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

22/04/2020 4:06pm

I had passed this garden many times on my daily walk but had never seen anyone in it until the day I took this image. It had always struck me as being different from the other houses in terms of the flowers, the colours and the design. Rahila was outside with her father-in-law, and told me they had come from Afghanistan seven years before to live in this neighbourhood. I asked her if she had acclimatised and if she felt integrated in the community. She said she did, and that her husband is a taxi driver but now, with coronavirus, the situation is difficult for them all in terms of work and going out.

This floral tribute had been placed in front of a house that is now unoccupied. The death was not coronavirus-related, but the wreath seems to symbolise the loss so many people are now experiencing on a daily basis.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a young man with shaved hair at the sides wearing wireless ear pods, a red tracksuit top and black tracksuit bottoms, standing side on, holding a lawnmower. He faces the camera in the front garden of a red brick house in a residential area. The image on the right shows the front garden of a red brick house with white PVC windows, a satellite and 104 painted in large white digits. The garden in front of the house has dry yellow grass and a light green velvet high back armchair with a floral pattern.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

28/03/2020 3:20pm

It was while walking around the area that I found this young man with his brother and mother. His fashionable dress and demeanour felt quite incongruous in relation to the task that had been set for him. They found it amusing that I wanted to photograph him doing this – a moment of normality for us all during the crisis. The symbol of the wire fence becomes an important metaphor for the line between private and public spaces during COVID-19.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a front garden and a red brick house with white PVC door and windows. It is a bright sunny day. Sitting on the steps of the front door is a young woman. Facing her is a young boy wearing shorts and wellies holding a collapsed umbrella. To the right of the boy a teenage girl dressed in black facing the camera and holding what appears to be a marching band baton.   The image on the right shows a section of the ground floor of a red brick house with a white PVC door and window with net curtains. On the brick wall surrounding the window there is a large chalk drawing of a stick person with Covid-19 written above it. Beneath the window is written ‘stay home’.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

22/03/2020 6:19pm

I came across Lacey and her family in their front garden during the early stages of self-isolation. Her young brother was thought to have shown signs of coronavirus at his nursery, so they had been at home for a week at that time. Her mother said she found the confinement really challenging with the two children in the house. Lacey was enjoying practising her dance routines outside. When I went to deliver them their photograph a week later, I could hear dance music coming from the house and Lacey once again practising indoors.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a middle-aged man with grey hair wearing a red shirt and black trousers holding a crutch in his right hand. He stands in the 20 MPH zone road which has a small central reservation lined with trees.  The image on the right shows a blue sky on the bottom right of which is the St George’s flag flying with NHS (from the reverse side) written in blue in the top left quarter. To the left of the flag, is the top of a large tree lightly covered in yellow green foliage.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

16/04/2020 3:59pm

I met Clive on the street, and there was a marked contrast for me between the energy of his red clothing and what appeared to be considered strain in his movement. He told me he had just had an operation and was living with his brother in a house along that road. When I encountered him he had just completed 10,000 steps, shuffling one foot at a time. His fortitude seemed extraordinary, and mirrored the inner strength we all need to cope in this era of COVID-19.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a man with a shaved head, grey jeans, a black t-shirt, tattooed arms and large gold headphones around his neck. The man leans on a black walking cane and faces the camera on an area of rough grass beyond which garden fences and red brick houses can be seen. The image on the right shows a red brick house with a white PVC window and door above which there is a concrete canopy, on which stands an ornamental stone angel praying
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

10/04/2020 11:08am

I had photographed Dave 12 years ago in the same location but had never seen him again until this day. He remembered me, and the photograph I had taken of him with his dog. He told me he had been suffering from cancer then and was now in recovery, but that sadly his dog had died. I asked him how he was managing and he said his rock music is a great comfort and keeps him busy. I found the old image of him with his dog, which I delivered together with this one from our new encounter.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows an adult wearing a furry yellow Honey Monster costume, including a red tracksuit top and blue tracksuit bottoms standing in a residential road with red brick houses beyond. The Honey Monster is holding a large black and white dog facing away from camera. The image on the right shows a close up of an artificial red poppy garland held to a red brick e wall with wire.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

31/03/2020 12:35pm

I saw this vision approaching from a distance and was quite amazed at what was becoming apparent as he came closer. He told me that every day he goes out to walk his dogs for his permitted outing, and as part of this routine he wears a different costume. He said that this cheered things up for him and everyone in what was a very difficult situation. I was intrigued to see what he really looked like, but he declined to take off the head apparel, telling me he didn’t look good at all in reality.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows an area of rough grass on which a young girl stands facing camera wearing a black dress and flip-flops. Behind her a woman sits on the grass with a baby and another woman and children stand as though engaged in an activity. Behind them several red brick houses and parked cars can be seen.  The image on the right shows a tall red brick wall running between two red brick houses and an area of rough grass in the foreground on which patches of cut grass have been left and dried. A large round privet hedge, a smaller hedge, and the remaining stump of a hedge are planted in front of the wall.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

13/04/2020 2:57pm

On one of my daily walks I came across a Romany Gypsy encampment on the community grass area and asked if I could take some photographs. I was interested in how they were managing in isolation, and the grandmother said to me, “If God wants to take you, He will, and there is nothing you can do.” The young girl in the image went into her caravan to put the dress on especially for the photograph. I managed to take prints to them before they were moved on to another area by the local council.

A photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a grey pebbledash house with white PVC door and windows. On top of a porch are three models of white bull terriers with black eye patches. The larger life size bull terrier, wears a purple neckerchief. There are other smaller stone ornaments on the porch roof and in the garden below including water babies or cherubs, as well as a terracotta flowerpot beside the door. The image on the right shows a young girl standing on the right of the image in a playing field with a goal post, a slight hill and trees beyond. The girl stands side on looking out to the left of the image. A short distance in front of her face is a large colourful butterfly kite.  Both the girl and the kite cast shadows on the ground across the grass.
Portrait from the series, Breathe. © Michelle Sank for Wellcome Collection.

22/03/2020 4:47pm

I found this young girl with her family – she was there with her two brothers, her mother and her grandfather.  She was entranced by the kite and the struggle her grandfather was having to get it to fly continuously. When I captured this it felt like there was some hope and joy despite the darkness of the current climate. I asked her mother how they were coping, and she said she was finding it difficult managing with all the children, but she was doing okay.

About the photographer

Photograph of Michelle Sank

Michelle Sank

michellesank.com
@sank_michelle on Instagram

Michelle Sank is a South African-born documentary photographer who lives in the UK. Her work explores contemporary social issues. Her photographs have been exhibited and published worldwide, and have won awards in prestigious competitions, including those run by the National Portrait Gallery and the British Journal of Photography. The most recent of her four books is ‘My.Self’, commissioned by Multistory, about cultural identity amongst diverse young people in the Black Country.