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Chanel Irvine

Updated: May 29, 2020

Please elaborate on your quarantine work.

These photographs are from my project ‘Time and Tide’ (2020). Over five weeks in three different states of Australia, I witnessed first-hand the severity of the drought and the aftermath of some of the record-breaking bushfires.

I also spent time in places where the land had not yet been affected by the fires, though the morale of the people there certainly had. With this series of images, I hoped to contrast the visible devastation of the bushfires and the drought with scenes of a seemingly unaffected seaside summer, to offer a picture of the state of the world today; where many people are living in some form of environmental, political, social or health disaster, and others remain safe and sheltered – for now.

I think it’s particularly important now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, for people to realise how quickly things can change and how at mercy to nature we really are.

At the same time, it’s crazy to think that suddenly this heartbreaking crisis has become “irrelevant” because of the scale of Coronavirus.

33 people were killed – including four firefighters – more than 11 million hectares of bush, forest and parks burned and 1 billion animals are estimated dead. On the 1st of January, the air quality index in Canberra – at 4,091 - ranked the worst in the world, 20 times higher than the hazardous level, with smoke later reaching as far as New Zealand and South America. That is terrifying, and yet now all we hear about is Covid-19.... I hoped that the images could pose as some sort of warning against future fire outbreaks and the realities of climate change, and I wanted them to illustrate much we have to be grateful for in the first place. How much we stand to lose. But maybe Covid-19 will help people realise that in a different way.

Where would you rather be in quarantine?

Somewhere by the sea, where I could swim every day... No matter what’s going on in my life, being submerged in a body of water seems to fix EVERYTHING. If I could somehow be at this magical location with all of my favourite humans that would be PERFECT.

What is the weirdest meal you’ve had during quarantine?

A whole box of Pringles with red wine (I’ve been really lucky living with my parents, as otherwise we’ve had really great meals every day).

What were you curious about today?

If anyone actually knows what they really want to do with their life (feeling somewhat existential) ....

What conversations did you have today?

I’ve been working non-stop today, but before my work Zoom meeting this morning my friend from Australia called and we briefly chatted about establishing a good work-life balance and how hard it is to set up boundaries when working from home... I clearly still need to work on it!

What did you learn today?

Some people really are driven purely by a personal need for recognition... I hope I will never let a pursuit of people’s approval or fame dictate or influence the creative work I do... Making comparisons in art is as constructive as trying to light a candle underwater.

Now, let’s get a bit deeper:

Could you please describe yourself and your work as a creative.

I’m a documentary photographer, fascinated by the tension between preservation and change and how it plays out in all of our stories and realities. I’m a sucker for super ordinary things that are ‘timeless’ in my mind, nostalgic for memories that often aren’t even my own.

Has the current situation had an impact on your work process?

Definitely. Of course, as a documentary photographer I can still go outside and “document” what I see (mainly; closed shops, hand-drawn rainbows stuck up in windows and people queuing outside supermarkets wearing masks), but my actual process has changed so much.

I find myself increasingly hesitant to approach people to photograph them (which I normally love to do), as I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or think that I’m risking their health. I can’t wait for the day that I can just walk up to someone again (without thinking about 2m of separation or worrying whether I’m breathing on them), have a relaxed conversation with them and take their portrait. Maybe even give them a hug afterwards.

Because of the social-distancing rules and closure of the majority of small businesses, a lot of the projects I was going to start working on have had to be cancelled, or hopefully just postponed. I still shoot on film (#filmisnotdead), because I didn’t want to switch to digital just because there is so much pressure to produce and share work from this time immediately.

How has it affected your productivity?

At first I was really motivated to document this time in the small countryside village where I live, and some days I still am, but I think now it’s gotten to a point where my mind has been completely oversaturated by the same images on Instagram; masks, portraits taken through windows, portraits of essential workers, and more masks. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing just to “keep up” or to “not miss the opportunity.” I like finding my own opportunities and I’m getting more and more convinced that for me and my creative motivations, I might have to wait until this is all over.... There’s only so much “negative news” I can handle, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to photograph some of the positive stories that come out of this.

Long term, how do you think this will impact your work or the industry you work in?

I think that documentary photography might actually become more popular, and accessible, for a lot of photographers who are now unable to work with clients or collaborate in close proximity to others. Anyone can ‘document’ what’s happening around them. What does worry me is that Coronavirus might set a new precedent for what makes a “good photographic story.”

Will documentary photography forever be influenced by Covid-19 in some way?

I can see the project titles already - “Post-pandemic life,” “A new norm” etc. etc. Will other stories lose their significance just because the impact isn’t as “big” or “bad” as Coronavirus??? Bigger isn’t always better, and I hope we don’t revert to only telling negative, news-worthy stories.

How are you reframing your social interactions?

I’m trying to call at least two friends a day – one from Australia and one from the Northern Hemisphere (we’re much more spread out up here!) My book club has had to take place over Zoom, but it’s so different to being together in real life, where we’d probably be less likely to constantly speak over the top of each other.

My friend Kieran and I started doing ‘Monday Movie Nights’ – where we would start the same move at the exact time as each other. We weren’t together, but made the experience feel less lonely somehow.

What’s the most inspiring / creative response to COVID-19 you have come across so far?

I absolutely loved the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge recording of an epic group of musical artists from all over the world, in their own homes – they did a cover of the Foo Fighters’ ‘Times Like These.’ It gives me goosebumps whenever I watch it (often). I think it’s an important reminder that creatives will always find ways to create, regardless of the obstacles thrown our way.

Looking back, what will you miss about quarantine?

Not having to wear make-up, and not feeling guilty for not constantly filling my time with social commitments.


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