Photograph shows a view from a street of a window in a Cotswold stone house, in which is placed a rainbow made of lego.
A Lego rainbow in the window of a house during the COVID-19 lockdown. © Historic England Archive, image reference DP263445. Photographer credit Steven Baker.
A Lego rainbow in the window of a house during the COVID-19 lockdown. © Historic England Archive, image reference DP263445. Photographer credit Steven Baker.

Picturing Lockdown or Feeling Lockdown?

An exploration of what this public-generated photographic collection curated by Historic England tells us about the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in England.

About Historic England and 'Picturing Lockdown'

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown in England, Historic England initiated a responsive photographic project called Picturing Lockdown. For one week from 29 April 2020 Historic England issued a public call out to collect photographs over a week of lockdown and initiated ten artist commissions to better represent groups of people disproportionately affected by Covid-19. The aim was to create a unique and reflective record of a week across the nation during this extraordinary moment, capturing the public experience of the COVID-19 lockdown for posterity by adding a new collection of photographs to the Historic England Archive that would spark a conversation about identity and its connection to history and place.

Historic England

The role of photography in documenting the pandemic

Our shared social experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a distinctive visual character from the start, from new visual languages of official public health messaging, to spontaneous acts of creativity, from window art to street graffiti, communicating hope and rage, to representations of masking and social distancing.

The photography that has emerged, in news and press coverage, in advertisements and personal practices, has established a new visual and social paradigm for the representation of pandemics. It transcends the previous documentation of epidemics both in sheer scale but also in the incredible variety of aesthetic forms it has taken, and in the range of authors, from professional photojournalists, to front line NHS workers, to artists and to the wider public.

The restrictions of social distancing and the enforced separation from loved ones has enhanced the value of the photograph as a form of communication and interaction charged with emotional content as well as descriptive value. The visual vocabulary of epidemic photography established in previous events has been greatly expanded by this outpouring of visual material, creating a new and varied range of tropes on a large scale.

Just as it is all but impossible to recall major historic events like 9/11 or the Vietnam War without evoking photographs, the pandemic is producing images that will shape the memories of future generations, as well as being part of the ongoing process of understanding and adjustment.

The call to contribute

As a means to engage the public and to collect material for their archive, Historic England devised an open public call for photographs taken during the peak of the first lockdown as a week-long mass-participation event from 29 April to 5 May 2020. The invitation, widely circulated via social and broadcast media, asked participants to share their experiences of lockdown, to document how they were meeting the challenges of self-isolation and social distancing, and to create ‘a unique and reflective record’. In addition, ten professional photographers and artists were commissioned to produce a photograph per day alongside the five strong team of Historic England’s own staff photographers.

Nearly 3000 photographs were submitted by members of the public from all over England, of which 100 were selected for Historic England’s collection. Entitled ‘Picturing Lockdown’, the collection was launched on Historic England’s website on 15 June 2020 to widespread acclaim and significant media coverage.

In 2021, Historic England engaged the Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) at the University of the Arts London to undertake an analytical survey of the collection, to identify and explore what the images can tell us about how the public experienced lockdown, and what they thought were valuable and important subjects to photograph. The team at PARC undertook both a quantitative and qualitative review of the submissions, which included a systematic classification of the content of the images and of the text that accompanied them. This research has yielded fascinating insights into how photography is used as a descriptive medium but also more significantly how it can be used as a vehicle to express a wide and profound set of emotions and states of being.

The public response: communicating emotions

The photographs received include depictions of scenes that are now part of the recognisable visual culture of COVID-19, from home baking and home haircuts to empty streets and Personal Protective Equipment.

Particular themes and patterns emerge showing both how members of the participating public experienced lockdown but also – subtly different - how they thought that lockdown was best communicated symbolically for a collecting project that was also, notably, a photographic competition. Dominant themes include rainbows in windows of houses and rainbows more broadly, as a collectively recognised symbol of hope, and now of the NHS.

Some photographs in ‘Picturing Lockdown’ spell out their affective content and purpose visually – see, for example, images that message boredom or happiness through window signage and dressed props.

For others their emotional message is communicated unequivocally through the accompanying free text descriptions (each submission had the option to include a title and a 50-word narrative). These are revelatory. Vocabulary terms and their synonyms such as loneliness, sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, panic, worry, boredom, grief, tragedy and anger alongside gratitude, hope, persistence, resilience, reassurance, care and love are some of the most popular words utilised, regardless of the subject of the image.

The titles given by the photographers to their images are also telling of the larger symbolic work that photographs were expected to communicate in the context of ‘Picturing Lockdown’.

A tendency to universalise is particularly notable: that which is particular becomes generic. Titles mediate between the personal content of the photograph and the larger gesture it communicates. Even photographs of close family members whose names are clearly known are titled to represent ‘a toddler’ or ‘a teenager’. Places that could be quickly located on a map become ‘a closed park’, ‘an empty street’ and so on. While some of this elaboration of symbolic content is a poetic strategy to confer relevance on a photograph competing for selection, it is notable that the generalisations also express a desire to speak ‘on behalf of’; to make sometimes personal, intimate and domestic photographs into collective or universal statements in a project that sought to capture shared experience and build national connections.

Through the work of the title, conceptual links are made between the photograph as an isolated personal moment and its wider social context.

‘Picturing Lockdown’ titles and narratives are thus highly valuable as a form of data. They demonstrate not only what the photographs were about but also why the participating public engaged in the project, that is, what the photographs were for. 

For communicating emotion, for creating a collective experience, under conditions of isolation, through a public platform and also, for gaining recognition (the project was about connection and engagement but had a competitive element that shaped submission). Together, the photographs and the accompanying texts show what lockdown looked like but also what the experience felt like. 

Indeed, almost two thirds of the images submitted were not of people, demonstrating that the potential symbolic quality of a scene was significant.

A notable proportion of photographs are, interestingly, of scenes and subjects, from sunsets to landscapes, that might not seem immediately connected to Covid-19 and more like entries to a conventional photography competition that could have been taken at other times outside of a global pandemic. However, by their submission to ‘Picturing Lockdown’, and especially as emphasised in their textual narratives, all of the submissions are always about Covid-19, regardless of how they look. They might not depict masks or clapping but as photographs specifically taken for a Covid-19 project, they are photographs of Covid-19-related experience and feeling. Their significance – variously representing, for example, emotional concepts, such as solace, fortitude and escapism – lies outside the frame.

A valuable snapshot

Analysis of both image and text in ‘Picturing Lockdown’ suggests that the project might be better retitled ‘Feeling Lockdown’. What lockdown looked like seems less important than what lockdown felt like; what the project was about and what it was for was primarily emotional. The accompanying text is essential to understanding photographs’ extra-pictorial aboutness and what the photographs were expected to do and say. This additional material provides the individual experience behind the collective shared symbols and the common communicative devices that are frequently used in popular photography (for example, images of nature).

Every photograph feels lockdown even if it doesn’t picture it, making the collection a unique and incredibly valuable snapshot and sample of the English national experience at a crucial moment early in the pandemic.

About the authors

Dr Annebella Pollen

Reader in History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton

Annebella has published widely on visual culture topics including a 2015 book on mass-participation photography projects, ‘Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life’.

Dr Paul Lowe

Reader in Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, Londo

Paul's most recent books include 'Photography Masterclass' published by Thames and Hudson, ‘Understanding Photojournalism’, co-authored with Dr. Jenny Good, published by Bloomsbury Academic Press, and ‘Reporting the Siege of Sarajevo’ co-authored with Kenneth Morrisson, also with Bloomsbury.

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