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24 May 2020updated 18 Aug 2021 10:40am

Strange Days: lockdown in East London

Photographer Spencer Murphy has produced a thoughtful series showing life under lockdown in the area surrounding his home. 

By Gerry Brakus

Spencer Murphy is used to documenting life outside his window and is fascinated by communities, having previously photographed series on urban dirt bikers, the gypsy and traveller horse fairs and many more.  

Before the pandemic hit, Spencer was making his first moving image documentary about a community in East London.  Cut short half way through, he was left with a significant amount of time on his hands.  “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”

Spencer found himself taking pictures of the people and the paraphernalia that felt 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.”

“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” says Murphy of documenting life in lockdown.

“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.”

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“Watching human behaviours 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”

“I’ve been careful who I approach, where and how, whilst observing distancing. There’s been a real mix of reactions, most people say no when you ask, some of them in quite a firm aggressive way. I’ve had people call me names, one even swiped the air with a stick, even though I was probably more than 10 feet from him. I’m quite resilient but some days those reactions make you disappear into yourself a bit and I may take still lifes and landscapes for a while before I ask again. There is no telling who will say yes and no, quite often I’m convinced someone will say no and they turn out to be the friendliest person I’ve approached that day.”

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Strange Days is an ongoing project documenting this time, you can follow along on a dedicated site Spencer has set up.