“Everything was uncertain, but there was a feeling of camaraderie”: Photographer Olivia Harris shares her nostalgic photos of summer 2020
Few places felt more surreal than London during the first lockdown. The city, which is typically powered by movement, purpose and rampant careerism, was transformed overnight. Shops were shuttered, offices closed, and the streets, once bustling, fell silent. “It was such a strange atmosphere,” remembers photographer Olivia Harris. “More like the imagined aftermath of an apocalypse than a pandemic.”
In her new limited edition book, Days On Repeat, Harris reflects on this uncanny silence; on the brief inhale before the devastating exhale. The project contains photographs from in and around her local neighbourhood of east London, all taken between April and July 2020. With Covid-19 still a sinister and unknowable mystery, the streets were, she remembers, “deserted and silent”. Back then, residents were mostly following the rules, confining themselves to their homes, hoarding jumbo packs of toilet roll, and swapping scare stories of impending military takeovers. “Londoners who are often so short of time suddenly had an abundance of it,” Harris tells AnOther. “I remember swapping Covid notes with a stranger in the wine aisle of a supermarket with otherwise nearly empty shelves.”
Despite the ominous headlines, Harris’s vision of London is calm; almost euphoric. City dwellers, basking in the rays of a prolonged summer heatwave, are shown doing whatever they can to escape the cramped confines of their high-rise apartments and flatshares. They squeeze next to the bins in their front gardens, and soak up the sun on communal walls and porches. “I was fascinated by how differently people were using outdoor space,” says Harris. “It became a place to work, sunbathe and socialise. People were making the best of it and determined to have some fun despite everything.”
Looking back on the images now, the photographer admits to feeling nostalgic – and not just for the weather. The bizarre unravelling of the pandemic, which left much of the world reeling, also helped to bring people closer, and gave some the time to reimagine their potential – both on a personal and collective level. “The first lockdown was overwhelming,” she says, finally. “The incredible heatwave and strange circumstances made it feel like we might be on the cusp of radical change ... everything was uncertain, but there was a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness too, despite the isolation.”
Days On Repeat: 04/20-07/20 is available to buy on Olivia Harris’s official website now.