It took us by surprise. This was something that only happened in 'other countries'. That first wave of lockdown found me stumbling around empty streets with my camera. It was then I started to notice the covid street art, the unused cars covered in bird poop, and flower displays dying outside pubs. There were also early signs of resistance and conspiracy theory; I noticed large pavement scrawls telling Londoners to go back home (they were descending on beaches at weekends while the locals stayed indoors), and street art references to 'anti social distance resistance'.
I found so many stories to tell during this experience that it is impossible to tell them all. Here I can only hint at those wider stories and my own personal experience of events during 2020 and just beyond. It shows the first lockdown, beginnings of normality, and then it becoming worse than any of us could have imagined. I very much felt that I was part of this story.
There is no space to include images of homeless people trying to feed themselves when the few people that are on the streets are no longer carrying cash. I cannot include the busker playing to a single passer-by, desperate enough to take whatever he could get. I could also fill a book with stories about the “anti-social distance resistance”, and “DFL go home” (Down From London go home) undercurrents that emerged during lockdown. Tensions were growing.
As the rules began to relax after the first lockdown, closed shops increased their renovation activity, using the downtime to refresh and prepare, at least those that had survived. The impact of refurbishment resulted in homeless being evicted from the unused doorways which had temporarily become their home.
As people began to emerge again, fear remained apparent with people keeping their distance for the most part. You could see it in the eyes above the mask as they assessed those walking towards them and adjusted their path accordingly.
Normal life was some way off, but some semblance of normality returned, with shops, cafes, and pubs partially open. While there was optimism for many businesses, for some it was simply too late. A handwritten note in a window by “Barry” regretfully informed that he was shutting down....... (continues after gallery)
....Within this strange new world, I spoke to a number of people, including Simon the artist who painted with a feather but found he could not bring himself to paint during lockdown. I spoke to a masked Bob and Debbie, both in the high-risk category; they were grateful to be out but were worried that rules had been relaxed too soon. Sam on a small market stall on a narrow street was finding business tough. He said he did not blame people for not wanting to walk down a narrow road to pass his stall. Nevertheless, there was hope and the steps towards normality were gratefully accepted.
The summer passed and my project came to an end. I began to assemble my work into the story of Covid Brighton.
Then the infections rose in the North of England, slowly spreading south. It was not long before the local lockdowns became another nationwide lockdown. The story continued, and I went back onto the streets.
I have felt the despair and frustration personally, but I am one of the lucky ones. I cannot imagine how it was and is again to live with multiple children in a small flat during lockdown or how losing your job impacts day to day life, or being unable to visit the sick and elderly relatives who spent their final days alone.
As I write this in January 2021, shortly after President Trump leaves office, a new strain has spread rapidly, and severe lockdowns are in place. This time round we do not have the long hot summer that helped ease some of the pain. It is going to be a long dark winter, but vaccine rollouts have begun; I can do no more and I put down the camera for now.
This will end, it has to. Time will move on. Those we have lost, protests, street violence, 5G conspiracy theories and fake remedies will be examined and debated. It will not change what happened, but it will fade. The sun will shine, and the virus will become part of a history that we lived through.
My name is Mark Heathcote, I am a street photographer. These photographs highlight some of my experiences documenting Brighton during the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic. It seems a strange thing to say, but I hope you enjoy them.
Stay safe. Don’t touch your face. See you on the other side.