The pandemic has wreaked havoc on people all over the world in myriad ways, from our shelter, to our livelihood, our security and, ultimately, our global mental and physical health. In the wake of uncertainty, many independents have moved back into their family homes to cut the cost of rent and other expenses. For photographers, this time has been particularly peculiar, especially for those who are used to finding compelling subject matter in the outside world, now cut off from safe opportunities for exploration.
In 2020, Billy Hickey was living in New York, attending classes at the International Center of Photography, when COVID hit the city. By late March of that year, the school had to shut its doors and move classes online, and Hickey decided to move back in with his parents and sister to wait out the virus. Shortly after moving home, his sister, an oncology nurse, tested positive for COVID, and his father—an essential worker who repairs ATMs—was grounded. Hickey’s mother is self-employed, and all four family members had to be quarantined together for two and half weeks, until his sister tested negative for the virus, twice. During this time of isolation, Hickey began photographing his family.
Being forced to slow down in close proximity to other people for extended periods of time can catalyze a melancholic boredom, but there are also glimpses of beauty that come in flashes, emanating from the previously mundane. As soon as his family went into isolation, Hickey realized that their story could be told through photography. He held a family meeting, and explained his idea to his mother, father, and sister. “My extremely patient family verbally committed to letting me harass them with a camera for the foreseeable future,” he recounts.
In the midst of quarantine lethargy, Hickey now found himself with a daily purpose. “Each room held an opportunity for more photos, and every activity, no matter how mundane, was set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and could be made into a photograph,” he reflects. “Finding the truly beautiful moments was a gradual process. I had to come back to similar scenes and the same rooms over and over again. I photographed every day for months.”
Hickey’s resulting photographs range in style and subject matter, brought together under the project’s title: How We Were. Some images feel like candid shots of boredom, and some look as though they were staged in constructed sets—a swirl of tempos that map the oscillation of emotions in uncertainty. One of the photographer’s favourite images was actually made by chance. He explains, “I was making a few weird self-portraits in the backyard one night with off-camera flash, and my dad poked his head out the window to shout random jokes at me. I quickly abandoned my self-portrait endeavours to photograph him while he was above me. This photo always reminds me of the French taunter in Monty Python’s the Holy Grail, hurling insults down from above.”
As a student of photography, and with the encouragement of his ICP classmates and teachers online, Hickey used a number of different light sources to explore and better understand his medium. “Our home became a place to play with light, experiment, and improve my craft—like a photographic dojo,” he says. “Some examples of light sources and photo techniques I used include TV screens, lamps, painting with light, long exposures, off-camera flash, self-portraits, and natural light.”
Despite all of the different subject matter, lighting, and characters within his frame, Hickey’s work is bound together through a monochrome color palette. He explains that this decision is symbolic for many reasons: “In moving to black and white, my intention was to give the photos a sort of timeless, uniform feeling, like photos that we might find in history books in the future. They are linked as a series, and the mood shifts with the loss of the vibrant colors of our reality. We are left in a different space, where things seem normal, but something feels a bit eerie and off.”
While Hickey initially pursued How We Were for himself, he reflects on his images’ potential for broader impact, saying, “In a turbulent year with so many important and crucial issues in the spotlight, it’s tough for me to say why this project is particularly important. Photography has given my life a lot of joy and happiness. It has helped me deal with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and in that sense it helped me get through the pandemic. When people view this project, I hope they think about their own lives, those they love most, and the things they care about, because as mundane and normal as it might seem, life doesn’t need to be glamorous to be beautiful.”