Interviews with creatives, Photographer | 27 May 2020
“Doortraits” by photographer Sapna Odlin.
Sapna Odlin’s poignant doorstep portrait project for lockdown.
Sapna Odlin has been photographing streets and households during “lockdown” to capture the stories of people in her community and to mark this extraordinary time. We first saw Sapna’s “doortraits” on Instagram and were immediately struck by this method of capturing the moment. We’re fascinated by how intimate and poignant the work feels despite the physical distance imposed between photographer and subject due to social distancing rules. Portrait photography is usually such an up-close and personal affair, the change in dynamic adds a new dimension to the work.
Sapna is a family photographer. Her work focuses on “the beautiful chaos that defines every day and the little moments to treasure.” Her “doortraits” are her response to lockdown, we explore some of them below and find out what she’s learnt in the process.
Sapna, can you tell us what you do?
I’m a creative and have spent 21 years building websites. In recent years documenting my family’s life on camera has become an obsession — I come from a family of photographers so you could say it’s in the blood. My obsession has led to me doing more and more photography and now I specialise in shooting scenes of family life. Beyond this my husband and I love to transform spaces and surround ourselves with visually appealing things, so we can usually be found up to our necks in a renovation project.
Has the current situation affected your creative practice?
Yes, with the enforced lockdown many of the enquiries I had for wedding and newborn photography vanished, with some projects postponed. I’ve had to think on my feet and have progressed a project photographing local (Reading based) creatives.
Juggling so many balls is the toughest thing right now. From home schooling a 6-year-old to keeping my business going and finding time for myself, it’s a challenge. But I’m confident that suspicions around homeworking will lessen and we’ll all eventually feel the positive effects on our lives, health and relationships.
Tell us about how your “doortraits” project began.
I was sat at home at the end a busy day and heard a chorus of “Happy Birthday” being sung in a Spanish accent. A nurse who lives nearby was being serenaded by her colleagues. It was so unusual in the early days of lockdown to hear anything like it, that I asked if I could take a photo. I posted it on Instagram and a client said she was sad that I couldn’t capture her family. I asked if she’d like a “doortrait,” she did, and then asked if I would photograph her street! We agreed she’d make a donation to a local charity as payment and so it began…
Next a wonderful friend and neighbour, Helen Pierce helped spread the word where we live. She was unbelievable and in a short space of time had written a beautifully worded poster, explaining what I was trying to achieve and what people should do to get involved. We live in a beautiful, 200-year-old, Georgian building, with sash windows a cobbled stone walkway and wrought iron railings that made a perfect backdrop. I ended the first session with a series of portraits of my neighbours that when I shared them, they immediately captured people’s imagination.
How did you identify your subjects?
I started getting enquiries straight after posting the first images, so a lot of them identified me. These included people living in community spirited streets who wanted a visit. As luck would have it the timing fitted the VE day celebrations and I was able to capture some of those.
I wanted to provide a service to anyone who wanted to be photographed. With so many people unable to see loved ones, I wanted them to be able to send a photo. I also liked the idea of photographing streets that I could walk or cycle to and was aiming for a good representation of households. Now that the project has taken off, I’m particularly interested in documenting more BAME people, because this horrible disease is affecting our communities disproportionately.
“ My plan was to capture people in this surreal pause in our lives.”
How much planning goes into a shoot?
My style of photography is relaxed, no forced posing and I always attempt to “tell a story” in a frame. My plan was to capture people in this surreal pause in our lives. The lens I used was important as was the timing, though this had to be flexible.
When shooting like this, I like to use my 85mm lens as it allows me to capture the details and emotions such as pain or love in a person’s face. It makes everything seem closer, allowing me to photograph from a safe distance. I don’t need to get physically close to my subjects so all of my “doortraits’” are taken from the street.
The 85mm is also great for ensuring a flattering portrait. The images will hopefully remain in people’s families for generations, so I want them to be perfect. I chose a time when the light is beautiful; the Golden Hour. Shortly after sunrise or before sunset, when sunlight is redder and softer than it is when the sun is higher in the sky. However, this is normal life, even in lockdown, so at times people had to work around things like getting their children to bed, so then we’d just go with the timing that worked.
The VE day celebration session was shot in the blazing midday sun. I wanted the photos, to show how communities come together, and to serve as a record of this strange time — a social history if you like.
“The intended audience for these photos is future generations, it feels like we all understand that. ”
Are “doortraits” something you’ve come across before?
Doorstep photography isn’t a new idea, documentary photographers often use this type of photography to tell stories where words fail. It feels important to play my part. Ever since I was a child, I always felt the urge to document, I feel that visual content is so important, not only for us to feel connected to people around the world but also to show how people’s lives are affected. Showing a park full of people enjoying BBQs is one thing but these photos will have a bigger impact and will resonate with people in the long term because of the context. A photograph takes a second to take but can take a lifetime to reveal its meaning. The intended audience for these photos is future generations, it feels like we all understand that.
Why do you think people want “doortraits”?
People want to tell their story during this extraordinary moment in our lives. Think back to favourite photos of yourself, I bet you can remember how you felt at the time. Many of those who have taken part have said they feel so thankful for what they have and for things they took for granted previously. I’ve not spoken to a single person who says they want to go back to the hectic lifestyle they lived before the lockdown.
Please can you share a couple of the stories you captured with us?
Christine story really moved me. She is a nurse and lives in my block. She has a heart of solid gold. She follows her cat around the communal gardens to make sure it doesn’t make a mess. She leaves me Hostas in my terrace. She also saves lives. This is Christine’s story in her own words:
“I wanted to wear my work scrubs for this photo because right now being a nurse feels such a strong part of my identity. For many, the current lockdown means staying safe and staying at home. For me lockdown means that I continue to work full time as a nurse in the NHS. Emotions and feelings cover the whole spectrum from anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion to feeling grateful, hopeful and finding joy in the small things. “
“I wanted to wear my work scrubs for this photo because right now being a nurse feels such a strong part of my identity.”
“The beautiful roses are from the communal gardens. These roses remind me of my grandmother and thinking of her gives me strength. The photographs are for my family who are all in New Zealand and now seem so much further away. I wonder how long it will be until flights resume and I can hug my mum and dad again.
What I will remember from the lockdown is the depth of gratitude shown to NHS staff, carers and other essential workers who have kept the community functioning. The lockdown has shown me what it is like to live in a world with less air and noise pollution and how beautiful it is.
It has also shown me what it is like to live in a world without feeling the touch of another person. Photos of couples and families in lockdown made me realise how fortunate they are to have someone to hug, a hand to hold and to feel the warmth of another person right beside them.
I, like many others, live on my own and I feel like I’m forgetting what human touch feels like. It also makes you grateful for friends, neighbours and the community around you. This is where “doortraits” come in. I feel that everyone’s experience of lockdown is unique to them and everyone has a story to tell that is worth listening to.”
“Life now is better in some ways, harder in others.”
Nicole lives near me, we met at a mum’s pub group and have been supporting each other ever since. Nicole is one of the most intelligent people I know. This is Nicole’s story in her own words:
Life of Five in Quarantine.
“I believe all of us humans are connected to something that wires us into the natural world. In the same way that each starling knows where to fly in a Murmuration; each bear knows when it’s time to hibernate; squirrels know how and when to hunt, gather, and store; humans can also sense and respond to the environment changing. In early November 2019, I knew what to do. Years of clutter from a house move that never managed to completely unpack and settle had been causing me paralysing anxiety. Suddenly I was imbued with this energy, this sense of purpose. I had to build a home studio to broadcast performances from my home and I had to do it NOW. Over the next 3 months I prepared for a lockdown that I couldn’t have known was coming. As public entertainment events started to be cancelled indefinitely, I went live with my show, “Love In The Time Of Corona.”
Like most families in lockdown with young children, we are having similar challenges with home-school, anxious children, relationship tensions, and the domestic load that has ballooned when it was already at breaking point. At first, I despaired at the emails of lesson plans sent from the school. I decided that it was simply impossible and that playtime and heaps of it was going to be the new normal. I moved the dining room table to the wall, got my act together with the back garden, and surrendered to Star Wars. Again, in a moment of prescience a friend had handed over his entire DVD collection when we met up for my birthday in early March.”
“Life now is better in some ways, harder in others.”
“Before lockdown, my husband Zarand was in the next phase of building his transport business. Too early to qualify for any government bailouts for the self-employed, it was during a casual visit to Lin’s Veg Shed at Tolhurst, Organic farm on our last school run that we got a lifeline. Panic buying in the supermarkets and rapidly decreasing home delivery slots had led to higher demand for local organic produce and they needed drivers! We were all absolutely delighted, and though it isn’t heaps of work, a modest income is all we need right now to keep us afloat. Life now is better in some ways, harder in others. My children have additional emotional and social needs and that takes a community. We need that now more than anything.”
You can see more of her “doortraits” and read the stories behind them by following Sapna on Instagram. If you live in or near to Reading and are interested in a “doortrait” Sapna would love to hear from you.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the project as much as we did.