I’m looking at an image where almost everything is purple. Four people – they look like a family – are dressed head-to-toe in shades of lilac and violet. One of them clutches a purple book of love languages, while another plays a plum-hued recorder through a medical mask dyed a similar shade.
On the floor is a box of Cadbury Roses. More purple. It’s a surreal scene.
The image, by photographer Rowena Meadows, was posted on the Mass Isolation Australia Instagram account, a photographic archive documenting everyday experiences of the Covid-19 crisis.
A few posts after the purple image is a black and white photo by Tim Turner: a handful of people and their dogs stand in a park, unnaturally spaced out, and on the right there’s an electronic sign that reads “social distancing required”. Another shot by Nicola Stevenson shows two anonymous gloved hands on either side of a bowl of alphabet soup, the letters on the spoon spelling out “stay home”.
Freelance photojournalist Asanka Brendon Ratnayake captured a shuttered shopfront (roller doors pulled down, a makeshift barrier of milk crates in the foreground) in a lurid pink shopping-centre environment – an eerie reminder of how bright and busy the space usually is.
The project, which launched on March 31 and is curated by Shaohui Kwok and Amelia Saward, is the local arm of a collaboration between Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Gallery of Photography WaIreland, and Format International Photography Festival in the UK.
It’s inspired in part by Mass Observation, a project that recorded everyday life in the UK from 1937 to the ’60s, capturing the thoughts and opinions of the public through open research as well as covert recordings of people at work or on the street.
Mass Isolation takes this concept and strips it down to the barest essentials, using photography to show us the different – and similar – ways we’re experiencing the pandemic. And it’s not just for artists. Anyone can submit an image.
“Photography is the perfect medium for documenting our lives,” says Fiona Sweet, artistic director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. “With changing technology and the rise of social media, it’s democratised the artform of photography.”
And while many images online now are beautiful, the public is encouraged to think less about capturing a perfect composition, and instead to document what life is like during this extraordinary experience.
Sweet herself spent two weeks in quarantine after returning from the US a few weeks ago, and found comfort in photography. One morning she saw a kangaroo outside her door and quickly snapped a picture.
“It’s a really ordinary, relatively ugly photo because it’s standing in front of a hot-water service outside, with a crappy fence and poor lighting,” she says with a laugh. But she likes it because it reflects a very specific moment of her experience. “I’ll insist my photos don’t end up in the exhibition, that’s for sure.”
The Instagram page is phase one of two – the plan is to host an exhibition next year in Ballarat, Victoria.
To submit a photo to Mass Isolation Australia, post it on your Instagram feed, tag @massisolationaus and use the hashtags #massisolationAUS and #massisolation. Dates for the 2021 Ballarat International Foto Biennale will be announced in the coming months.