McInnes celebrates the simple act of going to the park, in a time when for some it might be the most significant part of the day
London has now been in lockdown for over a month, but unlike a number of other cities around the world, people are still able to leave their homes to go to the shops and exercise alongside other individuals who they live with.
Theo McInnes is a 27-year-old photographer based in South London and has taken his daily excursions as an opportunity to start working on a new personal project. Each day, at around 6pm “when the light is nice and the park is at its busiest”, McInnes ventures out to his local Kennington Park. Heading towards the entrance along Brixton Road, a street normally packed with busy cafes and restaurants and noisy rush-hour traffic, now there is quiet, and an uneasy scarcity of life. “Then, you get to the park and all of a sudden it’s just like this explosion of life,” explains McInnes, who has been searching for a narrative upon which to base a project about South London since leaving university. “This really interested me. I’m thinking of titling the project, Kennington Oasis, because it’s almost like this little oasis where everything else around it is like ‘tumbleweed’, and then you enter this little, familiar green space with people going for a jog or walking their dogs.”
The result is a documentary series, still ongoing, capturing the buzz of activity that has descended on one of many green spaces in London. Running, skipping, TRX suspension training and even fencing are just some of the goings on that McInnes captures in black and white medium format. McInnes had just returned from a holiday in Vietnam ready to dive into work and commissions again but met with the instruction to quarantine just a couple of days later. With everything cancelled or postponed, he has found motivation by focusing on his personal work.
“Lockdown has helped me by giving me more time to work on photography that I want to work on and not photography that I’m just being paid to do.”
What have been the main changes in your life as a result of the pandemic?
In terms of photography, the biggest thing that’s changed is the work. Before lockdown started I was in Vietnam and I came back ready to get back to it, with loads of shoots booked in and loads of ideas, and then lockdown started a few days later. I like being busy and being productive – that’s when I’m happy. When I’m really quiet and there’s not a lot of work going on, I quickly get unmotivated and get a bit down, so it was good to kind of kick myself up the bottom and get myself back into a routine. After a couple of weeks of not really doing any photography stuff, I decided that I really just need to act like this is a quiet period of work. Just like with all photography, you have busy periods and you have quiet periods.
Many creatives have spoken about embracing this time to hit the pause button and reflect. As one door closes – momentarily – have any others opened for you?
Because I’ve been so quiet with work, it’s given me a lot more time to sit down, write some notes and really think about ideas and projects. I had gone through a bit of a dry spell with shooting personal work, as I’ve been quite busy with commissions and other stuff. I haven’t actually done or finished a personal project in ages. So, it’s quite nice at the moment that I’m shooting the body of work and adding to it every day. Lockdown has helped me in that respect, by giving me more time to work on photography that I want to work on and not photography that I’m just being paid to do.
As someone who is familiar with taking portraits, often having to go up to strangers to ask if they don’t mind being photographed, have you noticed any differences in people’s response or willingness to interact?
Sometimes there is that initial wariness – “Who’s this guy talking to me?” – kind of thing. But I found that when I was shooting portraits out in the street on a normal day, when there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d say maybe five out of 10 people would say “yes”. I don’t know why, but now pretty much everyone’s been happy to be photographed. I can think of one or two people who said they’d rather not. There’s a way to do it that is approachable, that engages people and shows that you’re not a weirdo with a camera. I like starting the interaction off with a compliment, or because someone is doing something genuinely interesting. I think once you’ve started to break down that invisible barrier where people are a bit cautious, I find that people are happy to have their photo taken and even intrigued about the project. I’ve also been shooting with quite a long lens so I haven’t had to get too close. It’s been surprisingly easy.
“It’s just a celebration of people still doing the things they want to do.”
What started as a few snapshots, has developed into a personal project. Do you have any plans to develop it into something more?
There’s no underlying, hidden meaning to the project, it’s just a celebration of people still doing the things they want to do, in terms of getting fit or walking the dog. It makes me feel good seeing people do that. I feel that this is a really positive thing. One of the main reasons you do a personal project is because you enjoy photography. I’m so lucky in the fact that my career is also my hobby, in a sense, and it’s great that I’m starting to develop a body of work that I’m happy with and that people are interested in seeing it which is fantastic. It’s a nice little story of the park at a certain period of time, and I’m documenting it. I think this is a really interesting time to document what’s going on, and I think I’ll look back on these photos in 20 years and be reminded of how strange this time was.