Stranded in a small Waikato town for six weeks, Becki Moss decided to spend her time in COVID-19 isolation photographing strangers.
Moss didn’t have the virus, but as a person living with several major chronic illnesses, she’s at high risk from it—so, in March, as New Zealand’s omicron outbreak ramped up, she swapped her Auckland flat for her mum’s tiny place in Tokoroa. Then she went online, looking for other people who were in self-imposed or compulsory isolation. She wanted to make portraits of the human experience of COVID.
“Documenting COVID in its very human form was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” she says. “The only images used in news media are stock images of RATs. You see case numbers instead of people.”
Part of this is due to New Zealand health authorities’ refusal to allow photography to take place in hospitals and other clinical settings—a refusal that extends even to people who have consented to be photographed. Overseas, pictorial coverage of COVID-19 reaches hospital wards. In Aotearoa, it stops at the door.
As a result, there’s little documentation of people’s experiences with COVID—and that’s also because it’s difficult to make good portraits when both parties involved are social distancing. Until the advent of a phone app called Clos.
The app allows Moss to remotely operate the camera settings on another person’s smartphone, while directing them via a video call. Through the phone camera, Moss remotely visits another person’s home and looks around for the right scene, the best light, and for something or someone to hold the phone—a bookshelf, a windowsill, a flatmate.
As a photography set-up, it’s a bit weird—“it’s just this disembodied voice coming out of their phone which is on the other side of the room”—and it separates Moss from the tools of her trade.
“It takes away some of the control photographers really like,” she says, and laughs. “All of a sudden you have to deal with using someone’s not-very-new Samsung. It makes you just go back to basics.”
At the same time, Moss reckon people weren’t as nervous to be photographed as they would usually be. The phone is a familiar object, less intimidating than the presence of a photographer and camera, and as a result, it was a shortcut to a certain level of intimacy. “I usually wouldn’t photograph someone sitting on their bed within the first half-hour of meeting them,” says Moss. “But it’s just their phone—and people take selfies all the time anyway.”
Some of the people Moss photographed were at home simply because they’d tested positive for COVID. Others were at home because the virus posed such a dramatic risk to their health that spending time with others during a time of high transmission posed a real danger. In Moss’s portraits, it can be hard to tell which is which, and that’s one of the points her series makes: you can’t always pick vulnerable people out of a crowd. Josh Urlich looks like any kid learning from the kitchen table during a lockdown, but he’s at home because it’s too dangerous for him to go to school. (His father and brother, who are electricians, take rapid tests daily.)
Several people, like Moss, had gone into voluntary lockdown. Mikey Brenndorfer decided he had to make a choice between his social life and his job as a youth health nurse specialist. He chose his job. “I do support a lot of vulnerable people,” he says. “I don’t want to be the source of transmission for them.” His sister, who lived in Canada, passed away from the virus in 2020, and he and his family members are vulnerable. “My disability doesn’t impact me so much in terms of my health risk, it’s just that everything hurts already—I don’t want to add a virus on to that.”
Some people caught COVID from circumstances designed to protect them. Robbie Francis Watene probably caught the virus from the support person who visits to help with her disability. Eden—not her real name—had reduced the immunosuppressant medication she takes for her autoimmune arthritis due to the risk COVID posed. Then she caught the virus after all, and was hospitalised with pneumonia in both lungs.
She posted images online of herself on oxygen in hospital, and became a target of vicious online abuse. “I don’t think these people have any comprehension of how it is to be a disabled person—without COVID on top of that,” she told Moss.
One junior doctor Moss photographed was 14 hours into a 16-hour shift while on her 10th day of recovery from COVID-19—she had had to return to work on day eight. “You’re around people who are the sickest they’ve ever been, and I feel super self-conscious that I’m not very well,” she told Moss. Another junior doctor, Sarah Cornes, told Moss about being offered extra shifts on a daily basis.
Many of Moss’s subjects were able to rejoin the world as it was after they recovered. For others, their lives remained insular, especially after New Zealand removed society-wide protections and transitioned towards self-managing the virus. Now, the only way these people can self-manage is to stay home.
Many participants voiced concerns about the diminishing lack of care for others. “At school, the amount of people that don’t follow the rules with mask wearing, it just irritates me so much,” says Latamai, who’s in Year 13. “And the schools don’t actually try to enforce the rules. Even some teachers don’t even wear their masks out and about around the school. It’s, like, ridiculous.”
Moss, meanwhile, plans to make the Clos app a staple—as the pandemic grinds on, it’s a way to keep both photographer and subject safe.
As Jamie Wise told Moss: “We’ve never really grasped the enormity of the situation.” For many New Zealanders, the situation remains enormous.