The idea came as the first lockdown stretched on during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bex Day, the London-based photographer and director known for her emotionally sensitive work as well as for her edgy fashion shoots, had been staying with a friend and her child.
“The baby’s speech was delayed due to a lack of socialisation at play groups and nursery because of Covid-19 and lockdown,” explains Day. “I was curious to see how other children were affected by the pandemic.”
As restrictions began to ease, Day knew the time was right to give the young a voice – and so unfolded her Children of Covid project. In July 2020 she began photographing children between the ages of four to 13 and asking them, or a parent, to write down how the pandemic was affecting them. As she began documenting the children’s experiences, she found the project becoming a deeply personal one.
“I realised I’d been focusing on working through a lot of childhood stuff during therapy and that’s why I wanted to work with and photograph children – as a way of moving past and processing that difficult time,” she says. Her series Seesaw, which explores her experiences of OCD before and during the pandemic, was a jumping-off point for Children of Covid.
This latest series involved Day travelling across the UK for a year to meet different families. With editorial work on hold for many photographers, it was a welcome contrast to her more frantically-paced shoots for such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Dazed and Confused and I-D, as well as advertising campaigns for the likes of Levi’s, Burberry and Toast.
“It’s different working with children,” explains Day. “They will usually tell you what they want and what they think without hesitation, which I loved, and they have a short attention span so you have to work quickly and keep them entertained. There’s definitely a different kind of connection with the subject when you can spend longer with them, and an intimacy and sensitivity within the final images.”
So how did she win the confidence of the children she photographed?
“We would hang out a bit beforehand and they’d usually show me their rooms, various toys and favourite objects and around their homes,” says Day, “and we’d speak collectively with their parents to make them feel comfortable.”
Alongside the portraits, Day felt it was crucial to give her subjects the chance to tell their own stories – in their own handwriting. It’s a common thread in her personal work, which often gives a platform to those too frequently ignored by mainstream culture. Her series Hen focuses on transgender people over 40, and They Don’t Know explores the impact of disability benefit cuts in the UK.
“I wanted to give a voice to these children and allow them to tell their stories in their own way,” says Day. “I hadn’t photographed many children before and I wanted to change this – they deserve to be heard. I learnt that although they are mostly bored out of their minds, they are also scared of falling behind with their school work and missing their friends terribly – quite similar to the adults then, I suppose.”
Above: ‘Eleora and Eliana’
With its striking, almost surreal portraiture, Children of Covid blurs the lines between documentary and fashion photography. Day teamed up with a stylist and hair stylist, and photographed her subjects at staged locations which represented places the children craved to be during times of lockdown. Some mentioned the benefits of being closer to home, far from the pressures of the bustling classroom.
“A number of the kids said that Covid-19 has changed their behaviour in that they’ve become more curious and thoughtful as well as relaxed, which is great,” explains Day. “Casper and Louis liked the fact they no longer had to rush off to school but could have a cup of tea in the morning while doing their online learning. Many of them are pining for their physical hobbies such as gymnastics, swimming or dancing. There’s definitely been an increase in video game playing, and irritability too.”
While the strict lockdowns of 2020 fade into memory, Day is intensely aware the pandemic is far from over. But when it truly is, her images will be a testament to the children whose lives were frozen in time.
All images by Bex Day
The exhibition Children of Covid by Bex Day, curated by Sandrine Servent at Mina Raven, is at Offshoot Gallery, London, July 9-25.
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