There is a first time for everything: the other day I hired out a Santander bike to go to photograph in central London. I quickly realised that cycling in a city is a very different activity to walking in one. Eyes and ears must be kept on the road but, most importantly, on the lookout for other cyclists, cars, pedestrians going about. Already for that reason, this trip wasn't like the previous ones when my eyes search for photographs and I hear whatever tunes my memory plays for me in my ears.
I got to St Thomas Hospital in Westminster and from there continued on foot to University College Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital, St Bartholomew's Hospital and Guy's Hospital where I took the last frame in the roll. As the lockdown continues, I doubt however that this project ended there.
It feels odd to be confined in one’s home whilst a monumental change is taking place and just wait. Wait for the lockdown to be over, wait with fearful anxiety for the great Depression that is to follow, wait for the government’s updates in the afternoon, wait for my friends’ messages, wait for bad news, for good news and for whatever I have managed to ensemble for myself for dinner to cook in the oven.
There have been many open calls by various institutions to create art in response to the pandemic. I looked at a few but as none of them inspired me and because I am unable to bluff, I didn’t apply to any of them. To me, scanning the stack of negatives from the past two years was far more important. I had only scanned the London Archive ones since the summer 2017. It took three weeks of scanning approximately five hours a day to get through them all. I can’t tell you how good it felt to finish that task.
However, like many others, I have felt the need to document this time. In doing so I look to the future as well as to the past. I think of the way history is investigated, framed, reconstructed and re-evaluated. I wonder how our time will appear to the future generations who will examine it. It is assumed that future generations will be wiser but I sometimes doubt it, like I doubt if we and the bright minds of the world today, are wiser, kinder and more intelligent than those of yesteryears, despite the progress that has been made. It seems all too easy to judge the past from our perspective without remembering that, to draw a metaphor from photography, all lenses, meaning all perspectives, have their distortions.
Parallels of the pandemic to the WW2 have been raised in many countries across Europe and the question about when this is appropriate and when dangerous has debated in the press and on social media. I haven’t lived through a war which some older people see as a major disadvantage while others as a fate to thrive for. (I much prefer the company of the latter.) All I know about the world wars is what I have been taught in school and what I have read; all that my postmodern quasi academic studies in art argues is questionable. In other words, I have read a lot but have to admit to not knowing much. For certain at least.
On a side note, one thing that struck me when I was reading about the world affairs leading to the WWI, was that there were men across Europe who felt that a war would purify the air, so to speak. They yearned for it. How they envisaged the world, or their world, to emerge from the war, hasn’t been recorded. I remembered it in first days of the lockdown in the UK when I thought that maybe this pandemic is a chance for the Western World to change its economic models and its action on climate change, among other challenges. I don’t know why I drew a parallel to those men hoping for a war before the WWI and my timid optimism. Perhaps unfoundedly.
If I photographed empty London or documented my life under lockdown, I doubt anyone would be able to tell the difference to my pre-Covis-19 work. If my photographic work was perfume, quietness, stillness and isolation would be its heart note. That said however, I do want to photograph central London during lockdown but whether I will showcase those photographs or not, I haven’t decided yet.
When they began to build the Nightingale hospital in the Excel Centre in London, it suddenly became obvious to me how I should document this time. If our current state of affairs is comparable to a war, then the soldiers fighting against the enemy are the NHS staff and the battlefields are the hospitals: that has been said since the scale and severity of the virus became clear. I would continue the London Archive project by walking to the nearby hospitals and taking photographs along the way, should I find any. I would also take a photograph of the main entrance of the hospital which is a slight deviation from the norm but a necessary one.
I have made four walking trips so far. The first one was to the Nightingale Hospital in East London a few days before it was opened. On the second walk to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlton, I was accompanied by little Milo. On the third one, I discovered the riverside path that goes along Ravensbourne River to the University Hospital Lewisham. The fourth walk gave me blisters that are still healing. I admit that my plan was quite ambitious: I was going to walk to (and back from) the Queen Mary Hospital near Sidcup. I got as far as Eltham when walking got too painful and I decided to hop on a bus to complete what I had come there to do.
How these photographs will be presented, I don’t yet know but in the meanwhile I have taken some images through the lens to show what is to come.
© Carita Silander
Preamble to the London Archive Essays
I asked a few friends and members of family to choose a photograph from the London Archive they would like to know more about. As this premise is my own devising, I have taken the artistic liberties necessary in answering this question. Bar a few exceptions, the result is a series of short essays combining a brief outline of historical information, consideration of photography as a medium as well as an account on how I ended up taking each particular photograph.