“COVID-19“
When I felt strong enough to go out for a walk, out of desperation from being locked up in the flat, I would walk along the Thames on the large promenade that borders the river. It was a cool night in April, and the sun had left a searing purple and pink horizon line on the city. It is rare to see such colors linger at dusk and I had with me my Polaroid camera. I took a few shots and remember how silent and eerie the city felt. A ghost town is truly what it was. This image was taken home and washed with water, sprayed with a foamy bleach and then doused with liquid hand sanitizer in the patches of foam. (Nicola Muirhead)

Start With a Polaroid, Then Add Disinfectant. Here’s the Result

A quarantined photographer makes the most of the harsh materials at hand to create a fragile portrait of life in a pandemic

Smithsonian Magazine
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | July 2020

In mid-March, days before Britain instituted a lockdown, I flew from my native Bermuda, where I’d been documenting the island’s diverse identity in a personal photo project, to my home in the London neighborhood of Bermondsey. My husband and I began to self-isolate.

Suddenly confined to our house and worried about the worsening Covid-19 outbreak, I picked up my camera and started taking Polaroid photographs—of my husband, myself and our surroundings. At first, I saw capturing these quiet domestic scenes as a way to get my mind off the outside world.

Left, portrait of husband, right, self-portrait
Left, this is a close-up image of Faraz, my husband, in the warm sun that funnels through our window. I wanted the image to portray our closeness, our physical bodies, and how much this has grounded me in the height of my anxiety during this pandemic. The Polaroid was washed and then sanitized with bleach, which was left to sit on the image for a few minutes. I did an even coat of bleach with water and then washed it off again. Right, this is a self-portrait taken in our flat at the start of May. This project mainly focused on Faraz, my partner, as an extension of myself and the focus of my lens, as I tried to document our time in isolation and lockdown. I finally made the decision to photograph myself as well, including my hands and eyes, as a way of embracing my role in this work and as a record of my presence in this time and place. The Polaroid was washed and then sanitized with bleach, left to sit and pool on the image for a few minutes. (Nicola Muirhead)
Our bouquet of tulips in the bedroom died in the first week of lockdown. I left them for a while by our bedside and then eventually moved them to the porch. I didn’t throw them out for several weeks and photographed them again outside when the color of th
Our bouquet of tulips in the bedroom died in the first week of lockdown. I left them for a while by our bedside and then eventually moved them to the porch. I didn’t throw them out for several weeks and photographed them again outside when the color of the petals had turned gray and the stalks were shriveled to a milky brown. (Nicola Muirhead)
Before I began disinfecting my Polaroids, I focused on the concept of time. Counting days was a way of marveling at this moment in our history. The lockdown had not yet become the norm and there was no routine, so time felt infinite; and yet, its movement
Before I began disinfecting my Polaroids, I focused on the concept of time. Counting days was a way of marveling at this moment in our history. The lockdown had not yet become the norm and there was no routine, so time felt infinite; and yet, its movement and pace had not slowed. (Nicola Muirhead)

In this new reality, the repetition of unfamiliar routines that were intended to keep us safe—disinfecting all the groceries when we came home, washing my hands so much the skin began cracking—made me feel more anxious and frustrated.

So I started applying the chemicals that now seem to define our days to the images themselves. While the Polaroids develop, or soon after, I pour bleach, dishwashing liquid, hand sanitizer and other disinfectants onto them. Even when I take a photograph I don’t want to alter, I make myself do it as part of recording the surreal time we’re living through.

This intervention is an effort to visualize the invisible forces that have been permeating our daily lives—from the lethal, microscopic coronavirus to our unseen, yet acutely felt, unease.

But it’s also a representation of the new and unknown world that will come out of this moment—perhaps we will emerge more connected and resilient than before.

When you think of London, it’s difficult not to envision the iconic Tower Bridge. On my walks into the city, I would start by following the  Thames from our flat in Bermondsey. Seeing historic landmarks like Tower Bridge or St. Paul’s Cathedral gave me a
When you think of London, it’s difficult not to envision the iconic Tower Bridge. On my walks into the city, I would start by following the Thames from our flat in Bermondsey. Seeing historic landmarks like Tower Bridge or St. Paul’s Cathedral gave me a strange comfort in the sense that it reminded me of the many human sagas that have played out in the city. London’s landmarks still hold their ground, their presence, a glimpse at immortality. This Polaroid was developed and washed in water, then doused with straight bleach and bleach spray. (Nicola Muirhead)
The couple's clasping hands
Contact and physical connection are, of course, two of the most dangerous things you can do during the pandemic with someone outside your household. I have been so grateful to have my partner, Faraz, with me during this time, and we are able to hug and kiss and touch. Still, sometimes even touching your loved one can be filled with anxiety. When he goes out for the shopping or I for a walk, and return home, there is always the fear of carrying back the coronavirus. These are the thoughts I have had during the pandemic—adding to the anxiety of lockdown. This Polaroid was washed and then disinfected with bleach. I used dishing washing soap around the edges of the frame to draw the viewer into the hands touching, distorting everything else around it. (Nicola Muirhead)
The financial district of London, also known as “the City,” is especially haunting during this time. I went out to photograph important and distinct locations in London, such as this, in order to see for myself what had changed. The streets are empty, and
The financial district of London, also known as “the City,” is especially haunting during this time. I went out to photograph important and distinct locations in London, such as this, in order to see for myself what had changed. The streets are empty, and the barren concrete looks all the more imposing without the black cabs and people in suits going about their day. This Polaroid was developed, washed with water, then half-submerged in straight bleach while the other half was covered in dishwashing soap. (Nicola Muirhead)
Blooming porch plants
When spring arrived and the sun appeared more and more each day, it was hard to imagine the world was in this crisis. Our porch plants started blooming and it felt like a rebirth. A pure and natural process was still happening, in spite of the infection spreading across London. But however beautiful and comforting the entry of spring was, the news was in the background with updates of deaths and the rising peak of contamination. I often sit on our porch and water and touch the plants as a kind of therapy. This Polaroid was developed and then sprayed with bleach. (Nicola Muirhead)
About the Author: Anna Diamond is the former assistant editor for Smithsonian magazine. Read more articles from Anna Diamond
About the Author: Nicola Muirhead is a photographer based in London. Read more articles from Nicola Muirhead

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus