Adapting to new protocols demanded by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, even something as mundane as the “Saturday shop” — the weekly routine for most working individuals and families only a few weeks ago — feels like ancient history. As the new normal sets in, it has created a huge chasm between today’s reality and life BC (Before Corona).
London-based street photographer Dougie Wallace has adapted his calling (to capture the zeitgeist in his uniquely droll style) as he sets out to document the “only show in town”. Supermarket shopping is now one of the only public activities that calls for live interactions, and Wallace catches the moods and fashions as winter turns to spring, and shoppers adapt to new routines.
After early days of panic buying and empty shelves, life under lockdown has started to develop its own new ways. Shoppers patiently queue to get into a shop while killing time by staring into their mobiles or reading newspapers or books. White-collar workers dress down, as their professions allow them to work from the comfort of their homes. The rebels dress up, as if to defy the curfew on social gatherings. Supermarket workers keep it ticking for everyone, often at great personal risk over long hours.
The mask continues to be the symbol of this crisis. There’s been a lot of polemic about the UK government’s unpreparedness for the pandemic and the resultant fear of stock depletion of medical masks for frontline workers. It seems that one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world could not provide enough masks and protective equipment for those whose jobs involve saving lives, let alone for ordinary citizens. To substitute for the lack of availability, people got creative. Some homemade masks are simply functional, using advice circulating online on how to make your own mask. Others are more inventive – ranging from outlandish to plain bonkers. For the fashion-conscious, entrepreneurial makers are also beginning to oblige.
While we are all in this together, the real heroes of this story are the supermarket staff and the other key workers. Uniformed security guards regulate the flow of shoppers on a “one-in-one-out” basis, as in nightclubs. Checkout staff, directly facing customers, each a potential carrier of this deadly threat, are on the front line. Shop floor staff are doing their utmost to go about their duties, servicing customers, whilst trying to observe the newly imposed two-trolley-width distancing rules – all but impossible when stocking shelves in the narrow aisles of a Tesco Metro.
According to reports, some supermarket staff faced resistance from employers in relation to wearing protection, for fear that customers would find them unsettling, or worse, that the workers would demand “hazard pay” considering their greater level of exposure to the virus. Over time, employers, nevertheless, introduced a range of safety measures to create a new barricaded shopping landscape. These include plexiglass partitions for checkout lanes and branded uniforms, whether aprons or T-shirts, all blasted with slogans such as “Keep-2m-Apart”. However, unlike shoppers, who are encouraged to be expedient with their shopping trip, staff, if they are to work, have no choice but to spend eight hours or so a day trying to breathe damp, exhaled air through fabric.
Street photography can be challenging at any time but navigating through the health warnings of 2m distance-keeping makes the challenge of getting a good shot even greater. Wallace shoots with an Olympus EM1 Mark 3, which is small, fast and light. Yet he says he’s still struggling with the professional hazard of holding a camera close to the face while trying not to touch one’s face and remembering to regularly sanitize hands and equipment to protect against the invisible enemy. “No matter how long I’ve been doing this, some of the new practices still feel counterintuitive. We’re all learning how to do this new thing together,” he says.
— Lida Hujic