27 May 2022

Derry photographers document communities in lockdown

The photographers hope the images will serve as a record of this difficult time.

Photographers across County Derry are taking to the streets and lanes of the county to provide a snapshot of communities during the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Adhering to social distancing, they have been going door-to-door to capture portraits of families going about their daily lives under the extraordinary circumstances.

Trevor Benson, who has been taking photographs of residents in Castledawson, said the reaction to the project has been very positive.

He said: “People have been contacting asking ‘what time are you going to be up round this way?’ or ‘are you going to do our area?’ so it’s been good.

“They have been sitting waiting, some at the windows or on the doorstep. I think it’s just giving them something to look back on.

“Some have said they’ll save it on Facebook and they’ll get a memory every year about it.”

Much like the pandemic that inspired it, the project has taken on a worldwide appeal, with Kilrea photographer Carol McLaughlin first seeing it mentioned in America.

“A girl from America, I think, started the idea of the doorstep project,” she said.

“I’m in a group on Facebook called ‘Women in Photography’ and people said they were doing it in their areas, so I thought it would be really nice to do in our town.

“I put a message up on my personal page because more people in the town would be on it, and got a really good response, so we went for it.”

As well as providing a record for future generations of what life was like during the 2020 pandemic, the project has helped people to feel connected at a time when distance is in vogue.

Photographing in Magherafelt, Joseph Cullen said the idea of connecting people really appealed to him.

“A lady contacted me saying she was in England and she hasn’t seen her parents in Magherafelt since January and she was heartbroken about that.

“They’re not very good at technology, so I went to their estate and took a nice photograph of them and recorded a video message from her parents to her in England.

“It gave them a real sense of things going back to normal and being able to see them again. To be able to do that for people is brilliant.”

Re-creating that feeling of connection for older people without access to social media led to John O’Neill going a step further.

The Ballinderry photographer reached out specifically to the village’s elderly population, with the help of some comprehensive local knowledge.

“The third photograph in was Charlie Collins, who had a list made out of 37 people in the parish who were over 80, so it went on a bit from there,” he said.

“I would say I was calling in an area on a certain day and people would get in contact. I arranged rough times that I would call so they were watching or a family member was keeping an eye out.

“They were contacting me looking photos done. Because it was creating a buzz, I was getting phone calls from people not on social media.

“A lady beside me said her phone lit up the next day and she was entertained all day by people phoning, saying they had seen her photograph on Facebook, so that was lovely.

“They are sitting in the house on their own and a bit of a conversation on the phone was keeping the boredom at bay.”

In keeping with the Loughshore parish’s unique character, local residents made sure to put their own spin on their portraits.

“The black and white seemed to work well for the older generation. Some of them were putting their stamp on it, if they were known for something or were a bit of a character,” said John.

“I did Patrick McGuckin’s on Saturday evening and I jokingly said to one boy’ ‘I’ve to go up here and get Patrick and the wife’s photo’ and he said, ‘I hope he’s on the sit-on lawnmower’.

“Patrick cuts the football field, and sure as could be, Patrick was on the sit-on lawnmower whenever I went up!

“There was the odd one needed a wee warning to get spruced up and that’s why I put the call out. They don’t want to be caught short – especially with no hairdressers at the minute!”

With reasons to get dressed up currently at a premium, residents of all four areas took the opportunity to don the glad rags, with some going to extreme lengths.

“In one family, the dad came out with make-up on and he was dressed up as a princess – clearly that’s what he’s been doing with his daughter in isolation!” said Carol McLaughlin.

“There were a few that threw on a bit of tan and got dolled up. I had said to come whatever way they wanted, so they could get dolled up or come out in their jammies – whatever way they normally spend their days.”

Joseph Cullen, who is a member of Mid Ulster Photography Club along with Trevor Benson, said the residents of Magherafelt were also keen to impress.

“Sometimes, everyone is dolled up to the nines, has their hair done and are in their best Sunday outfits,” he said.

“We’ve had kids getting dressed up in superhero outfits and that kind of stuff. One family all wore matching outfits and some have got their pets involved.”

With Covid-19 affecting work for photographers everywhere, all four that we spoke to were delighted to get out and about and taking pictures again.

“My daughter came out with me and we went round the town for three days,” said Carol McLaughlin.

“It actually worked out really well, and we got good weather, which helped. It was so nice getting back out with the camera again.

“It was a nice, community thing to do. Everybody got involved and it was lovely to see it all at the end – everyone’s pictures of their time in isolation.

“What made me want to do it was that it was a moment in history. It will always bring people back to that crazy time when we were all stuck indoors.”

In the nostalgia-fuelled reminiscence of life under lockdown, Joseph Cullen feels traditional photography can play a role in preserving memories of the pandemic for posterity.

“With the rise of camera phones, people don’t pay as much attention to traditional photography but actually going out of your way means you get some great photos,” he said.

“People will forget, in a year or two, all the stuff they went through at the time and having photos helps.”

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