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Sydney locked down

On April 5 Bowral, NSW-based photographer, John Swainston, had to be in Sydney packing up his city apartment for the Stage 3 lockdown just announced. Knowing Sydney would become deserted, as London and other cities already had been, he was determined to create some images of Sydney by night under lockdown, as a visual record and resource for historical reference.

Covid Lonely tram JDS
Lonely tram on George Street.

Early in the days of the COVID-19 outbreak, he had seen and been inspired by London in Lockdown, a collection of images by UK photographer, Giles Christopher, whose work can be seen here.

Central Railway Station country train departures board

Mindful of safety, he used masks, industrial goggles, gloves, sanitiser and every available self-protection. Public transport was out – and parking in town was, for once, no problem. On the three occasions he was questioned by police, explanation of the work being undertaken produced immediate support and encouragement. John used a Nikon D850 with Tamron 35-150mm lens, a Nikon Z7 with a 24-70mm and a 10mm f/2.8 Voigtländer manual lens, as well as a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 tele-zoom. He had AIPP ID, a Working with Children ID, insurance documents and evidence of documentary projects previously published on his phone. Each session was largely on foot, duration around 2.5 hours from 8.00pm to 10.30pm, to a location plan mapped out with Google Maps. Then he drove back to Bowral, around 110kms.

Slow trade at Portuguese Obsession, Kings Cross

Over a period of five nights, he visited The Sydney Opera House to Darling Harbour and Chinatown, city streets and Central Station. He drove to the airport the morning Virgin Australia went into administration. On each occasion he combined travel to Sydney to collect household possessions or attend dental or medical appointments. He no contact with people other than police or security guards.

King Street Wharf

With the images now collected, John is producing a short limited-edition photo book, to be produced in May by Momento Pro, with availability at the end of the month. He is hoping for an exhibition in Sydney after venues reopen, most likely in 2021.

Central Station country terminal taxi rank

This is not the only, nor even the main photographic project John has on the go. Prior to COVID-19 he was working on a book of images of the world’s great cathedrals – I Will Lift Mine Eyes – with a specific focus on the intricate ceilings of these magnificent buildings. Without access to libraries to research and cross-reference (courtesy of COVID), this has been put on hold until, hopefully, this time next year.

Virgin Australia terminal on the day the airline went into administration

‘People need to be reminded that the anguish of lockdown, with all its attendant financial and emotional hardships, has given Australia an extraordinary chance to return to an almost normal life, so much faster. We do not want to witness anything like this again.

‘I know that others have created fine work covering the human stories of this catastrophic health and economic event. I wanted to show our city solitary and deserted. This is a simple record of a time when people were unable to commune – the very essence that is our humanity in relation to the built environment.’

For more of John’s Sydney images and a fuller perspective:

William Street looking east towards Kings Cross

– All images and text copyright John Swainston, 2020.

ALSO, see our companion article from UTS academics Cherine Fahd and Sara Oscar on why photographs of empty places are so compelling.

One Comment

  1. Eddie Tromp Eddie Tromp May 5, 2020

    Fantastic work John.
    Look forward to your book and exhibition.
    Trust you are keeping safe and well.

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