The pandemic seems both so long ago yet still with us. The consistent cleaning of the government's dirty laundry seems to follow us everywhere we go, whether it be a new departmental appointment or Cop26. However in my home town of Chorlton, South Manchester we have had someone documenting, cataloguing and photographing the community as they walked past his front garden throughout the pandemic.
Mark Hobbs has only become a full time photographer in the last few years and his work in documentaries really allowed his social and community driven side to come out through a selection of very simple portraits in the his front garden across a very "strange time". He took over 220 portraits of strangers throughout the pandemic to create a sense of community and to really create some cathartic way for people to communicate and share their feelings and experiences in a time that we could generally only do that in a digital format.
Starting with a humble camera and a white backdrop he has subsequently created a book of all the photos taken and the stories that were shared digitally and verbally from the muses of the photos. I was indeed one of those people who had their photos taken and so were so many of my friends. It seemed as though every time we went on a walk or went to Barbakan or Lily's for a random Wednesday afternoon treat we would always wave and say hello to Mark and when he wasn't there we would still think about him. even Mark still notes that when he goes to Morrisons he still recognises faces from the project.
This project really warms my heart as a bold altruistic representation of the good things that came out of that dark period of history. The manifestation of the project into a book feels like a capturing of locale history, an opportunity to talk about shared experiences and something that we can look back on in generations to come. Whether we are laughing at peoples hair, what they are wearing, the fact they couldn't get any toilet roll that day or that they are smiling we will remember what life in Chorlton through lockdown was like thanks to Mark.
I caught up with him to learn all about the man behind the camera and the real life experiences and stories that he heard throughout this project.
Who is Mark Hobbs and what do you do? Hi, I’m Mark Hobbs, I’m a photographer and I have recently worked on a project over the three lockdowns of the pandemic where I photograph people walking past my house and ask them to send me an email with their stories and experiences during lockdown.
Before lockdown what sort of work were you generally doing? I do mainly portrait and documentary work. Mainly anything with people and stories generally. I’ll work with an idea and see how far I can take it.
Anything we would know or are there any highlights in your career? Not especially. I am fairly new to it all really, I only started full time photography about 3 and half years ago. I’ve always been doing photography in some way or another but I have a family and have had jobs, it was more of an economic standpoint that meant I couldn’t just be a photographer. Long story short I was running my own business that came to a natural fruition, I was working in building and construction. I knew I always wanted to do photography but never had any formal training or anything, I didn’t do it at university, so I’m a bit of a double outsider. Do you know Red Eye, they do a personal professional development thing for a year, so I did that in 2018 and that was the first time I did a full project. That was when I worked on a project called ‘Big Stick’! At the time I had young, well, younger kids, that project was about kids going to the park and finding sticks that they pick up in the woods and it went on from there really. Since then it's all been a ‘pandemic’ really hasn’t it?
Lockdown affected everyone’s life but how did it impact you? We generally have a busy household, even when you came in you saw some coming in and some coming out! We live in the centre of Chorlton so generally it is always busy around here, our kids have friends coming in and out etc. Suddenly it did become very dead. We do live on a busy road and we did notice the difference straight away. So of course all of my photography work and projects all just stopped overnight. It was a weird time wasn’t it? Everything was off. Equally there was a strange type of giddiness to it all, it felt like we were in the movies, a zombie movie! We went through that sunny heatwave, they felt like halcyon days of ‘wow, yeah, I’ve got nothing to do and I can sit in the park!’. Of course we had to learn everything again and help our kids with homeschooling, ask 14 year old me about multiplying fractions but now I’m no help. It was really sad to look at the projects that hadn’t been able to happen and very quickly I got that burn to do something. It was a little hard in our household because my partner is a frontline NHS worker so we had all that going on, would it be safe, eurgh, there was a lot of strain on the people in that profession.
So how long did it take until your lockdown project began? It really wasn’t that long at all, cabin fever starts to set in, I am a very itchy footed person! For the first few weeks I was helping a doctor friend create a ventilator machine that use a Y splitter so it could be used by two different people at the same time, I used to be a plumber and we were using pipes - which sounds very Heath Robinson- and so that consumed the first few weeks. Weird time. When things started to settle down I was spending time in the front garden and looked at our Elderflower bush which had really become quite a tree. So on one sunny day I decided to cut it down, now is the day. So I spent a good afternoon chopping it down to size and doing some weeding, all the things you just don’t have time to do otherwise and I noticed that there were still a lot of people outside walking around, whether they had been to the shops, or from the park. Even though I hadn’t spoke to anyone or like 3 weeks, the world was still turning and people were still getting on with their lives and that photography/documentary part of my brain started working wondering how I could just stop people and say hello and ask to take their picture. But would that be weird , so I started thinking about that for a few days and decided to do it.
So I got some old wood out the shed and painted it all white to use as a backdrop, I didn’t want a full backdrop because you wouldn’t be able to tell where you were, so it acted as more of an anchor. I put that in the front garden with my camera and sat on the doorstep, I quickly realised that I didn’t know what I was going to do when someone came over to me. Then I made a little A-Board and put on it a print out of exactly what I was doing, “Hi, I’m Mark and I’m a photographer! I’m asking people to stop and do a portrait in these strange times, what's going on? If you’d like to take part then come say hello”. That really gave people something to stop, read and look at. People could read it and decide whether ‘Keep walking kids, don’t look at the strange man’ or ‘Oooh, this is interesting!’ Within the first 20 minutes of the board going up I had the first person coming over and saying ‘Yeah, go on then!’ Which really built my confidence to get the ball rolling. This must have been the first week of April, so I was quite quick to get that started. Of course I wasn’t out there every day waiting for people as there was an amount of chaos in the house, as everyone else did, we went through the typical gambit of ‘yay, this is amazing’ to ‘oh god’, every ten minutes. So if it was sunny and nice I went and sat out there, it became a saving grace as it gave me something to do, something cathartic. Some people are happiest when they have nothing to do, like beach holidays, that's my idea of hell, I see a guy with a funny hat and say let's follow him or let's climb up to that castle! So the idea of sitting and watching Netflix didn’t really work for me.
So what happened to the project in the hiatus between lockdown 1 and 2? That was a really funny time, curfews at 10, going to the pub to get 5 beers and a pie and still not being able to get your hair cut! That was a time when people thought we were all done with the pandemic and life had resumed, are we on? Are we back? So really life just came back to normal, projects resumed and it was the summer holidays and life resumed. So I thought that was it for the project until they announced the sequel. So once November came around and lockdown 2 began I did just start the project again, somewhat more hesitantly than before. Then we had the craziness of December, the government saying we could have a week of basically ‘Merry Christmas!’ That led to lockdown 3. So when lockdown 3 started I got the project started again up until around April time.
What were the big comparisons between the people and environment throughout the 3 lockdowns? I think in the first one, from peoples perspectives, there was that vibe of ‘yeah, this is cool, cool in a weird strange way’, people weren’t upbeat but there was that kind of blitz spirit of pulling together and ‘I’ve met my neighbours and baked a cake for them, ooh yeah!’. It was obviously sunny and a kind of fun summer. At that point Covid had hit but it hadn’t really hit properly, people had had it but not people that you knew, it was still early days. In terms of your immediate little world you felt fine, I think I only knew one or two people that had had it.
In the second one obviously it was winter time but Christmas was coming so people were in that mood again, I think people were taken aback because we thought it was all over but we had been thrown right back into it. By that time people had had it or known someone more immediate that had been ill but by the third lockdown it had really gone downhill.
When doing portraits you generally just get chatting to people -at a safe distance- 'Two metres there people! Keep your distance ma’am.' That was when the wheels really started to come off. It was January, the weather was dull, it was dark at 4pm, eurgh. It had really hit home, I was hearing stories of people losing family members, getting long covid and alongside that was of course the economic hit. Some people had been on furlough but that had ended or anyone self employed was really getting into bother but it really started to look never ending. So from a photographic point of view you could visibly see a difference in the environment, of course people were wearing shorts and t-shirts and the lovely summer light and then in the winter there was less light around, a different colour to the light and peoples expressions had changed.
Were there any stories that really stood out from the people you took portraits of? So I asked for people's email addresses so send them the photos I took of them and then I asked them to email back their experiences or stories to document their lives and give them a voice in the project. There were quite a few groups of stories, some that had had quite a sad time and were in mourning, another wide brush stroke were people that hadn’t had a good time but had made them readdress their lives. “I’ve gone to work, come back, my partner has as well, the kids have gone to school, they’ve got football afterwards and we are in the constant rat race, boom boom boom, every week whizzes past and this is the first time we have sat down and eaten dinner around the table without practise or a meeting getting in the way.” Some people even emailed back saying it had brought their family back together, they had sent more time together in the last year than they had in the last year, time to play a board game or someone had started painting again, just really quite nice stories. A couple of stories that really stuck out for me were people that had had babies just before or in lockdown and they were saying that their baby had never really met another human being, in life you end up going to a play group or socialise with people you know and that made me think of an angle I hadn’t considered. Another personal story was from a little girl who said “I miss my friends so much, even the mean people at school.”, you know it’s serious when you miss the people you hate.
There was also a story from an older guy, he was in a relationship but they lived separately and they moved in together when lockdown hit so they weren’t lonely, long story short she had a heavy stroke and he had to call an ambulance and thankfully she is okay now but if not for Covid he wouldn’t have been there! So that was a kind of weird serendipitous happening. I generally found it quite supportive to read other peoples stories because I know that I felt like that last week or I’ve done that.
There was another guy who passed by on his way back from the shops and you could see in his hands he had a packet of crisps and he said something like ‘I cheekily bought a packet of my favourite crisps on my way back from the supermarket and I’m trying to finish them before I get back to the flat’, and you know we’ve all done that. It was nice to have those stories come through and they really take shape further in the book.
Up to the end of lockdown how many portraits do you think you took in total? At that point we were up to about 220 odd! I'm the sort of person that says I should have done more when I had the opportunity but I think that’s great. I think there are so many positive things that we can take out of this, whether it be painting, walking, reading, gardening or anything, it can be this sort of revolutionary thing to push people to go further than they did before.
Was there already an awareness that a book would be the finality of this project? No, I rarely go into a project with a very military plan of this, this and this. Some projects work and some don’t, I generally take a project to galleries or curators and see where it lands which is generally an exhibition but for this I thought it was such a nice collection or stories and portraits with a real community base by its nature so I wanted to pull all that together. I quite like the idea that people will own the book and look through it and remember that there was a lockdown, ‘we had no toilet rolls’! It becomes a genuine social documentary of what was really happening, there is all the industry documentation by the news, all the stuff that will come out in the wash about the government whereas this is documenting normal, real life everyday people and how we were feeling, it’s nice to have those voices in there, that was the initial thought for the project. I keep saying to my kids that my grandparents would have talked about living in London in the war which was a big thing in their lives 'but now when you kids are grannies you can tell your grandkids that you were little ones when this happened.' I think it’s nice to turn it into a physical thing such as a book because it does feel like a natural end, I’ve never made a book before and other projects haven’t migrated towards a book by nature but this felt like something people can have at home. Exhibitions happen and then stop existing but a book can carry on forever and be a point of reference in 10 or 20 years.
Please recommend us 3 brands, businesses, group, places to eat or anything in Manchester?
1) I like Chorlton Ees Nature reserve - nearest tram is Sale Water Park and cross bridge at Jackson's boat if people fancy a walk round some green space and woodlands- it's good to get a break from it all.
2) Redeye photography network have lots of good talks and events on for photographers in Manchester.
3) Buy and shop local wherever you are this Christmas if you can- it supports your community, reduces pollution and waste, just makes sense.
If like me you would like a physical thing to hold that can represent our shared experiences over the last 18 months then this is the perfect thing to do so, whilst also making you smile and cry. I look forward to seeing more of Mark, his bubbly personality and the culturally significant work he does.
A very small number of the books have been printed so far and are available via Mark's website here - https://www.markhobbsphotography.com/