Mass Isolation project a connection in times of ‘COVID norm’

There's a face mask hanging next to a front door; empty grandstands at sporting fields; a hotchpotch of working from home spaces.

They're images we can all relate to: the new "COVID norm".

But the 413 images in Ballarat Foto's Mass Isolation project are more than pretty pictures. They aim to connect people during the very time they're being forced to stay apart.

Grandmother Margaret Wheeler greets her granddaughter Alice Sarah-Lay through the glass at the Trentham Aged Care Facility. It's one of hundreds of images that make up Ballarat Foto's Mass Isolation project.Credit:Sandy Scheltema 

“It was obvious at the beginning of the pandemic that we needed to do something to tell the story of COVID-19 photographically,” says Fiona Sweet, director of Ballarat International Foto Biennale, the gallery, which is running the Mass Isolation project.

“The isolation series has been a way to be able to connect people with that story while being separated.”

Inspired by the Mass Observation project that captured life in Britain from 1937 until the mid-1960s, the Mass Isolation series is the Australian arm of a collaboration between Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Format International Photography Festival in the UK, and the Gallery of Photography in Ireland.

Fiona Sweet, director of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

Some 9000 images have been submitted from across Australia since the project launched on March 31. Images are submitted via Instagram using the hashtag #massisolationaus and curators Shaohui Kwok and Amelia Sawardthen comb through them each day, selecting their favourites to appear on the Mass Isolation Australia Instagram page.

One of the selected photos captures a grandmother with a hand pressed against her granddaughter's through the window of her home in an aged care facility.

Another photo from the project, taken in the window of a small Japanese restaurant in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.Credit:Viki Petherbridge

It was taken by Sandy Scheltema, a photographer capturing a visual record of life during the pandemic in her hometown of Trentham, north-west of Melbourne.

“I like this photo because you can feel the love and it really tells the human cost of it all,” Scheltema says.

Scheltema has been uploading her images to the Trentham Connect Facebook page as part of a project funded by Creative Victoria and Regional Arts Victoria.

“I got such a response and people would post to say they couldn't wait for the next image,” she says.

“I think because people can’t see each other and they miss the conversations they'd have with other parents at school pick-ups, the community enjoyed being able to still connect with each other through these photos.”

Kel Devoil submitted an image to the Mass Isolation project of her children peering through the window of their home in Altona North.

Kel Devoil's children peering through the window of their home in Altona North.Credit:Kel Devoil

It was taken during Melbourne’s first lockdown after the family heard a rumour Premier Dan Andrews would announce a loosening of restrictions in his press conference.

“The kids are seven and 10 years old, so old enough to remember and understand what is happening, but I wanted to make sure I kept a visual record of the positives from lockdown so they don’t just recall it as being a time where they couldn't see their friends,” Devoil says.

Sweet’s vision is to turn the Mass Isolation project into an exhibition for the 2021 Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

If the risk of spreading COVID-19 is still present then, the project will become an outdoor exhibition where viewers can enjoy the images while maintaining social distance.

A 99th birthday for grandfather Max, one of 413 images showcased in the Mass Isolation project. Credit:Zoe Arnott

Outdoor exhibitions to help connect people with art during COVID-19 restrictions are already popping up, with Hillvale, a Melbourne photo lab and art gallery, hosting an outdoor exhibition series in Brunswick and Brunswick East called ‘Something to look at while you're out getting groceries’.

The photographs have been pasted over posters of events cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It’s exciting that we’ve been able to find a new way to share work and connect people with it,” says Andy Johnson, co-founder of Hillvale.

The next outdoor exhibition for Hillvale will be open to submissions from the public and will launch once stage 4 restrictions are rolled back.

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