Paul Romans’ insightful photo series documents “everyday” scenes from the pandemic
The London-based photographer wants his work to be “in counterpoint to the frenetic broadcasting and traumatic images we were being exposed to at home”.
- Olivia Hingley
- 24 February 2022
The pandemic hit just when Paul Romans and the rest of his cohort in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at University of Westminster were about to begin their final projects. Throwing all their previous plans into disarray, some of the students decided to defer, whilst others followed through on their original projects under restricted circumstances. Some however – including Paul – decided to engage with the pandemic as it unfolded. “In effect, to make the unknown of this historic catastrophe the focus”, Paul explains, “but also run the risk of the work failing given there were so many variables.”
Paul’s resulting project Subversive Code is a quietly eerie series which takes an uncanny look at the various stages of the pandemic. With a National Union of Journalists membership, Paul was able to justify his photography as a journalistic endeavour, and the project began with a lot of socially distanced portraits. “I made those initial portraits with a 4x5 large format camera, a decision which was driven by a correlation I recognised between this slow photographic process and the stillness which descended during the first lockdown – that weird ominous stasis.” Initially photographing health professionals, key workers, media workers, street people and strangers in parks, by August of 2020 Paul was able to photograph people in their homes, “documenting the shift in their professional lives or just responses to what they were seeing on television”.
Buying his first camera with “odd job” money when he was in his youth, Paul was exposed to art and photography from a young age. His dad ran an art foundation course and he was able to use the college darkroom to process his film: “I grew up seeing photography in the context of other art forms”, Paul explains, “not as this hermetically sealed thing”. Completing a BA in Fine Art, Paul went on to work professionally with lens-based media, but it wasn't until he took up a random opportunity to shoot a video in support of an NGO operating out of the Shatila Refugee Camp that Pauls perspective began to shift. Whilst the experience – and working within a “politicised and chaotic environment” – was extremely challenging, Paul’s time in Shatila proved to him the importance of photography as a tool of documentation: “when I got back to London, I thought about how effective still photography would be as a medium to explore the almost unfathomable complexities of life in Shatila.” And it was following his return to Lebanon the following year – to create a body of photographs in the context of a family bereavement – that Paul then decided to study documentary photography and photojournalism.
Far from being just a means of visual or aesthetic production, Paul places great importance on the theory behind his work. “I’m fascinated by the enigmatic and elliptical nature of photographs, especially when created in series and their fundamental instability as vessels of meaning”, he tells us, “I think that speaks to the problems of definition and expectation when we think about documentary photography.” Being aware of his positionality and means of retrieving his material, Paul continues to explain that his photography “requires direct engagement with the ‘real’, however we care to define that word. For me that means people, communities, the built environment, and my position in relation to them as both insider and outsider.”
This thinking directly informs Subversive Code. Wanting for the series to be “in counterpoint to the frenetic broadcasting and traumatic images we were being exposed to at home”, Paul instead focused on depicting the new “mundane” and everyday scenes that became common throughout the pandemic. News readers stationed outside hospitals, patients sitting outside in masks, online exercise classes and people sunbathing in their gardens. His musings behind the series were also informed by his dialogue with a post-grad team in the department of psychoanalysis at University College London who were running a project in which the psychology of various of key workers and volunteers were tracked through the pandemic. “Reading through the transcripts I was struck by a disconnect between these dramatic psychic outpourings and the bland settings in which they played out.” Paul concludes: “For me, the project is an unstable document which skirts the porous boundary between lived experience and representation.”
GalleryPaul Romans: Subversive Code (Copyright © Paul Romans, 2022)
Paul Romans: Subversive Code (Copyright © Paul Romans, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.