Vancouver art projects capture COVID-19 social distancing through photos and video
Three college-age roommates in track pants stand under the fluorescent glow of a gas-station sign, one of them clutching three bags of chips. A girl in a black protective mask wields her skateboard. And a kid in soccer cleats poses with two soccer balls alone on an empty sports field.
In Adad Hannah’s short-video portraits, shot with a long lens, something feels slightly amiss—even when the subjects are smiling. Put together, his “Social Distancing Portraits” series captures the strange sense of limbo we find ourselves in—the mix of resilience, reflection, and isolation that define this unprecedented time in urban history.
Photo and video art is emerging from the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with two major local projects—including Hannah’s—growing out of the theme of social distancing.
One of them, called Power of Portrait, is a new crowd-sourced public-art initiative to collect close-up portraits during quarantine and post them along the depressing spread of boarded-up storefronts on Robson Street and elsewhere. The other, led by the Burnaby-based Hannah, appears on his website, Vimeo, and Instagram, and as part of a curated virtual exhibit by the Capture Photography Festival. It depicts people going about their lives in isolation—stretching in the park, watching the world go by on lawn chairs, lugging bags with two weeks’ worth of groceries home.
With different approaches, both take a deeply human look at the experience of social isolation—often staring it right in the eyes. Both offer ways to experience art outside of traditional, now-shuttered galleries. And both promise to provide a lasting visual journal of these strange times.
“Power of Portrait: We are all in this together, Vancouver” is the full name of a volunteer art project that started when local clinical counsellor Andrea McLaren worried about the psychological impact of social distancing.
“From a trauma-informed perspective, when we can share our experience, the better we do,” she explains to the Straight, adding: “Art transforms the world and I think a positive portrayal of people can have an impact and can give a voice to people on the edges.”
When she started seeing businesses being boarded up downtown, she reached out to digital-media artist Jai Djwa for help in building an art project that might beautify the closures as well as connect people through a website.
She saw the boarding-up causing further negative feelings. “For me, it felt like we were preparing for looting, which was just a negative headspace,” she says. “And from a social-justice standpoint it also reminds me of the disparity between the rich and the poor.”
“I live in the West End and I walked along Robson Street and I felt like something taken away from me; when you see people in the coffee shops, it makes you feel a part of humanity,” adds Djwa.
Power of Portrait invites Vancouverites to submit photos—either selfies or shots of people they’re isolating with, preferably taken inside the home. The photos will be shared on the project’s Facebook page and website (powerofportrait.com/). The Robson Street Business Association has funded the printing of 50 of these portraits in black-and-white, to be grouped in a gridlike pattern and pasted onto the boarded-up fronts of the street’s shops and businesses.
The deadline for photo submissions is tomorrow (April 15, see guidlines here), though the team is looking at ways to expand the project and enliven other parts of the city.
McLaren and Djwa were inspired by French photo artist JR and his Inside Out Project, a global participatory-art initiative involving large-format street pastings of multiple portraits themed around everything from diversity to climate change.
Like JR’s project, Power of Portrait asks for photos that are in black-and-white. “That kind of levels the playing field and gives us all a sense of who we are as people,” Djwa says, emphasizing they want to show Vancouverites in all their diversity. “What we’re hoping is that these posters will evoke a sense of humanity.”
“We want to lift people up,” McLaren stresses.
One of the team’s guidelines asks portrait-takers to consider the idea of “We are all in this together” and how they might express that with their face. McLaren and Djwa are looking for neither models nor professional photos. The format also allows people to offer a small writeup of their experiences.
“One arrived this morning and it just warmed my heart. I felt a smile coming over my whole being,” McLaren relates. “It was just so powerful.…If this is the only submission we get, it’s already worth it.”
Hannah’s project started on March 14, when he found himself, like everyone else, facing the prospect of being holed up at home.
“It was not knowing what’s going to happen, feeling listless and trapped, and I said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ ” he tells the Straight. “It started before the sort of full kind of lockdown. So I was going out everyday and shooting people from a distance. For the first couple, I didn’t know it was going to be a series. And now I’m posting everyday.”
Hannah has shot almost all his short video portraits on the streets of Burnaby, using a long lens from a distance of at least five metres—a method that holds challenges and contrasts with his usual approach.
“Yesterday, I had to back into a bush to be able to shoot them,” he says with a laugh. “I ask them [his subjects] to stand completely still—but normally I would get right in and help to pose them.”
About 20 seconds in length and set to sometimes haunting, sometimes meditative music by Montreal-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Brigitte Dajczer, the works hover between still and moving images, catching the sense of suspension these times present. With one recent image of a couple having impromptu drinks with lawn chairs and blankets in their alley, you might not even realize it’s a video until you notice them blinking.
“When I went out the first day, I didn’t know what it would turn into, but I think it works to capture this moment: everybody’s still, but they’re still passing through time,” Hannah explains. “You don’t know what’s next. In a way nothing is happening, but your psychological time is still happening. So you see people caught in time. You can’t help but imagine what they’re thinking, somehow.”
Hannah has now collected a month’s worth of intimate portraits, one or two a day—of parents pushing strollers, of teens lazing listlessly in the park, of family restaurants bagging takeout for window pickup. At last check, he had more than 55 posted to Instagram and his Vimeo channel, each allowing him to add the subject’s comments or thoughts (which he acquires in quick interviews while shooting). Over that array, he’s noticed an evolution—no doubt one that will shift more as the weeks wear on. As one subject who poses with his bicycle relates in Social Distancing Video Portrait 44, “For the first week I was relaxed, but I have kids, I need to work, I need to pay rent.”
“At first, people I met thought it would last a couple weeks,” Hannah observes. “For all of us, it’s an emotional roller coaster, even within a day. But I get an emotional arc—not that there’s a collective mood. It’s more complex. Some people have more work, some people have less work, for instance.”
Over the weeks, the artist has had a lot of time to reflect on the effects of social distancing. And you get the distinct impression that the project has helped him get through the isolation, too.
“I’m surprised at people’s openness to it,” he says, “and that’s been nice for me, having conversations with people.
“I think humans are always as resilient as they are fragile,” he adds. “It’s been a tough time for people, but some optimism shines through, even though there’s some awkwardness too. But overall, they’re taking care of each other and looking out for each other.”