Overlooking marshes and a towpath along the river lea, and living by a beautiful hilly park in East London, I have never seen the area as busy. Sounds of feet slapping, runners panting, crushed stones crinkling, wheels looping, tyres rubbing and basketballs dribbling have become inseparable from the daily soundscape of the area during the pandemic lockdown. The cacophony of sounds and languages has never been as frequent and as diverse. Seeing the sheer number of people flocking to the area to engage in some sort of exercise or training was beautiful, if terrifying and frightening. While the park and marshes with their generous spaciousness and beauty have been able to accommodate big numbers of people and offer them respite and solace, sections of the towpath and footbridges have not. They are too narrow. Social distancing has therefore been hard to observe and for many, towpath encounters have become a source of anxiety and distress. On footbridges, distanced-queuing and waiting for others to pass has been the way people have negotiated the problem.
My partner fell ill at the start of the first lockdown in late March 2020. Emerging out of a nerve-wracking two weeks of intense anxiety, fear, and poor sleep, while obsessively listening to the radio and being on the phone with family and loved ones, in the spirit of Les Back’s important work The Art of Listening, I decided to channel my anxiety into documenting, both in image and sound, the people living in, and passing through my neighbourhood. The decision however wasn’t straightforward. Conducting ethnographic, visual work in times of a global, violent pandemic required sensitivity and careful consideration. Knowing that we ourselves had just had the virus provided some sort of reassurance that I was not reneging on our responsibility to keeping ourselves and others safe. Engaging in in-depth conversations was not an option. Neither was getting too close to people, or asking them to wait for the perfect shot and perfect framing. Note-taking had to be abandoned too. A less than one-minute intro about myself and the project was more than enough.
Equipped with a 23mm fixed-lens camera and a scarf to cover my face I hit the ground running. “How has it been” was the main question put forward to people who kindly agreed to take part, sharing their experiences, reflections and revelations, and from whom I’ve learned immensely. How invaluable nature is as a place of solace and respite, especially in times of uncertainty and collective anxiety, how precious and enriching our convivial urban culture is, as Paul Gilroy asserts, and how urgent it is that we work together have been reaffirmed in this project.
The selection of pictures in the work below are taken across a period of five weeks, and not in chronological order. Snippets of some of the sound recordings have been used by Alberto Duman, an artist, researcher and musician, and can be heard in Desire Worlding Paths.
View the full project here.
Manal Massalha is an urban ethnographer and documentary photographer. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics. She was a guest lecturer at the Royal College of Art and King’s College London, a postdoc research assistant at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL, and held a Visiting Fellowship at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London. To view her work, please visit: www.manalmassalha.com