The day before Victoria went into stage-three lockdown, Pete Dillon visited some of Melbourne’s most iconic spaces. He discovered Melburnians had gone into isolation long before the government mandated it. Monumental public institutions, such as the NGV and Flinders Street Station, felt “absurd with no one in them”. Graffiti-covered Hosier Lane, devoid of tourists, was now home to a pop-up health clinic.
“Entire shopping arcades were deserted, and the only people on the street seemed to be Yarra Trams staff cleaning handrails, construction workers waiting for their shifts to end, and the homeless and underprivileged, many of whom have nowhere to go,” he wrote. “Public thoroughfares appear frozen in time, except for the pigeons.
“It’s like the city is holding its breath. Waiting for it to happen. But we don’t know when it will hit, for how long, or what it’ll look like.”
In Sydney, Jiwon Kim and Kitti Gould photographed the empty spaces of the CBD and Bondi. Gould had only left her house twice in 21 days, and the sensation of jumping on her motorbike again felt both strange and freeing – “like I was about to embark on a Z for Zachariah kind of mission”.
She visited a barricaded Bondi Beach at sunrise; she ventured through a barren CBD; and she went to the Opera House, where she saw only one person besides police and security guards – a man using the venue’s steps as his personal gym.
“Beautiful Bennelong restaurant looked like a museum exhibit through the slightly dusty glass,” she wrote.
For Kim, “the lack of activity [created] an illusory sense of peace”. But that was tempered by “a palpable feeling of uneasiness in the air”.
“Every passing person is a possible carrier of contagion, and yet there’s a yearning for connection. The breadth of social isolation guidelines is making even this introvert crave the outdoors. How nice it would be to engage with humans again!”
Instead, she ambled down George Street with a lone seagull her only companion.
“There’s no need to try and maintain a 1.5-metre distance from others – there aren’t enough people to crowd the sidewalks,” she wrote. “Barriers prevent [me] from walking through the upper levels of the QVB. I’ve never had the building to myself. The silence is unsettling.”
In Perth, on an unusually hot Easter long weekend, Rebecca Mansell traipsed more empty streets and found very few people, and only slightly more delivery drivers.
“The city centre, usually filled with people celebrating long weekend festivities, was instead ghostly quiet and still, at once familiar and alien,” she wrote. “I found solitary men reclining on benches, deep in contemplation. I stopped passers-by – at a distance – to chat about how eerie the city seems, while others, in combat attire of masks and gloves, braved public transport to collect groceries.”
“The parks offer cautionary signs of social distancing regulations to joggers and cyclists ... The playgrounds, public exercise equipment and drinking fountains are strictly off-limits, shrouded in plastic tape.”
She also went down to the coast, where she was “greeted by streets lined with vibrant hand-coloured rainbows and ribbons – a message of love and hope from kids in the local community”. There were people on the beach, but it was serene – “a reverent quiet” had taken over.
In Brisbane, Morgan Roberts captured a city in hibernation – though the hibernation wasn’t nearly as acute as in Melbourne and Sydney.
“The culture slider is way down at zero and what remains has an eerie stillness,” he wrote. “There’s stuff happening, of course. The streets still need cleaning, the ATMs managed, normal things … It’s interesting how when you remove the hustle and bustle from a city, the often unseen layers become glaringly obvious.
“Still, there are elements that subsist. This isn’t a ghost town. People are here. Brisbane isn’t dead, not yet. Somebody still wants to spend money on Louis Vuitton … Families play in the park.”
Adelaide, like Brisbane, didn’t experience the extreme social distancing restrictions seen in other Australian cities, but the city’s beating heart – its bars and restaurants – had all but ground to a halt.
“The quiet of Adelaide’s east end is oddly calming. Small eateries and coffee shops are still open and serving essential workers,” wrote photographer Daniel Purvis. “The west end is completely dead. Built on hospitality and entertainment, the whole district is a ghost town ... Once a month I shoot a club night and I’m used to dodging strips seething with partygoers, but this Friday I walked calmly into the middle of the road with a tripod to set up a shot.
“While I appreciate clean streets and unobstructed building facades, venturing into public now makes me feel awkward, anxious and sad.”
To his surprise, Purvis bumped into several friends on his travels – including his former gym instructor who’d signed up as an Uber Eats delivery driver, on motorbike, while the gyms are closed. “It’s not so bad,” he told Purvis. “I actually quite like it. Streets are empty, especially at night. I just ride around.”
Adelaide’s parks and beaches felt more alive, even reassuring, Purvis observed. “Couples and friends walk in pairs; small families cluster, with children circling parents at a one-metre tether; and every group keeps a comfortable distance from the others. Visiting the beach on Sunday night was calming.
“Although it feels like normal life has ended, the waves keep rolling and the sun continues to rise and set.”