Juan Ortiz-Arenas takes a different approach to documenting lockdown in his series N17, Covid-19

The Colombian photographer used his one hour outdoors to reflect on his own state of mind, as well as how lockdown was affecting his local area.

Date
4 September 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

When lockdown was first announced, a flurry of creative projects emerged. In particular, creatives and platforms began to put out isolation-themed series and content. “Whilst amazing work was made, a lot of it just didn’t sit right with me,” says photographer Juan Ortiz-Arenas. “I got really tired of the ‘photographer found the strength to turn the camera on him or herself because: isolation’ trope. I also didn’t want to photograph deserted streets in Central London.”

With articles and research pointing to the fact that we were going to be in “this” for the long haul, Juan decided to take a different approach, producing a project spread out over a longer period of time. The result is N17, Covid-19, a series documenting Juan’s local area of Tottenham, honing in on how he and this area (which isn’t without its problems, as Juan points out) have been affected by the measures put in place. It’s a visual diary of an area and its inhabitants, documenting a “very weird and very worrying moment in our lifetimes”. His goal, he explains, was to “try to discover what (if any) bits of my own psyche would be reflected in what, who and how I chose to photograph.”

Despite the fact that the series depicts a part of North London in lockdown, a sense of community still prevails and N17, Covid-19 testifies to the diversity of Tottenham. One image in particular stands out from the series. Titled Embrace, it depicts a father and child in front of their house, the father’s arms wrapped around his small child’s body. It’s intimate and warm but has a formal quality to its composition, feeling posed, giving the image a certain grandeur. Despite this somewhat ceremonial structure, Juan adeptly captures their love and affection.

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Juan Ortiz-Arenas: Embrace, from the series N17, Covid-19 (Copyright © Juan Ortiz Arenas, 2020)

All of the photographs were taken during Juan’s one hour a day spent outdoors. “Lockdown in London was ironically, and perhaps cruelly, marked by some of sunniest days I had experienced throughout my nine years in the city,” says Juan, who is originally from Colombia. “Weather like that under normal circumstances would have seen Londoners hitting the streets in droves. Gone were the days of vibrant restaurants, overflowing pubs and herds of people pleasantly grazing in the parks.”

With time outside limited to “food and supply runs, actual runs or the perpetually nebulous ‘essential reasons’, all held to a one-hour time limit when possible,” the series was Juan’s way of making the most of that hour. In turn, while it documents the streets of Tottenham during this momentous time, it is just as much a reflection of Juan’s state of mind.

Looking back on the work, Juan recalls how liberating it was, knowing all he had to focus on was what was happening in that moment. “Sure, financial worries were, at points, at an all-time high,” he admits. “But what I discovered was a newfound sense of urgency to work on myself, to stay present and to commit myself to coming out of this thing a better person.” Emotionally, it was of course a difficult time and he experienced everything from fear to sadness, anger and confusion. “But thanks to my partner there were also moments of tremendous joy and hope for the future. I think going out and making the work helped me not fall victim to fear and media-induced paranoia because I was watching things unfold first hand. It taught me about human resilience and our will to carry on even in the face of great difficulty and uncertainty.”

Part of this newfound understanding and sense of purpose led Juan to the decision to move back to Colombia. While it had been brewing for some time and there were personal reasons which also fed into it, Covid-19 prompted him to reconsider his life. “This time has really helped me work to rid myself of a slew of doubts and insecurities that were a by-product of being stuck in the London grind,” he says. “Right now I feel happier than I have in a long time and that’s something I really want to capitalise on.”

In Colombia, he hopes to rejuvenate himself creatively. “A lot of interesting things are happening in Colombia, both socially and creatively. It definitely feels like ‘a moment’ and I didn’t want to let that pass me by without being an active participant in it,” he explains. “My plans here are to fully re-immerse myself back in the culture and to try my hardest to become a powerful and active voice within it.”

For now though, of course, he’s been in lockdown and keeping an ear out for his next project, when he can venture out again. “I’ve been on the lookout for interesting stories and different angles on things related to the pandemic and came across a circus company that’s been stranded in a lot not too far from my house for the past four months,” he tells us. “They’ve been unable to perform or relocate and I think there’s an interesting story to tell there. So I’ll be diving into that one and seeing where it takes me.”

GalleryJuan Ortiz-Arenas: N17, Covid-19 (Copyright © Juan Ortiz Arenas, 2020)

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A mental state

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A feeling, what matters, necessary

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Masks, some do, some don’t

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Trust no one

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Faded and frayed

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Fear

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Behind the luxury

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Noted

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Rules

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No place like it

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Hope

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Juan Ortiz-Arenas: Unity, from the series N17, Covid-19 (Copyright © Juan Ortiz Arenas, 2020)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.

rbd@itsnicethat.com

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