Photographer Tom Skipp explores the effect of lockdown on communities through spaces left empty
By photographing the spaces left dormant during the pandemic, Tom hopes to emphasise the emptiness (and tentative hope) he feels about our current state.
- Ruby Boddington
- 14 September 2020
Working in the creative industries right now, it’s hard not to take into account the political and societal changes happening all around us. It’s something that’s not gone unnoticed by Bristol-based documentary photographer Tom Skipp, who has seen a shift in his recent practice: “Without a conscious decision, rather than an increase in frustration and restrictions, my work is concentrating on the state of the UK and stories that help me understand others,” he tells It’s Nice That.
This saw him document the child artists behind the rainbows appearing across windows in the UK, for example, but it’s his most recent project titled Empty Community which really piqued our interest. It documents the spaces at the centre of our communities – “places of wedding receptions, tea dances, after school meetings, exercise classes, pre-natal lessons, local meetings, skittle clubs, diet classes, committee meetings” – most of which sat (or continue to sit) empty during lockdown. Tom’s project explores the effect these spaces being empty has had on the notion of community and how the actual spaces function when devoid of people.
All the photographs in the series are well lit and with impeccable composure, allowing you to fully take in every inch of the scene. In one image, confetti still litters the floor of Headley Park Community Centre and in another, of Redgrave Theatre, scuffs and scrapes cover the floor mark years of sets and lighting dragged from one place to another. It’s through small details such as these that the echo of life that once filled the spaces can be felt.
Although they are quiet and still images, there is a resonance in every frame of Empty Community. It’s an eeriness created by the knowledge of what should be there, and what isn’t. It’s a feeling Tom succinctly summarises by saying that “signs of a time before this pandemic hang heavier when emphasised with a total absence of the life that sustains them.” In turn, there’s a narrative in each image which tells us so much by simply documenting a space.
It’s a way of working that Tom has developed over the years, which he describes as recording the whole story in an image. “This has technical considerations, but is mainly aiming to capture things ‘as they are’,” he explains. “Not using lighting or interfering with things that are there or directing a subject on what to wear or how to pose.” He also remarks that “despite my love of film photography as an aesthetic, I can’t help but feel that it’s an elitist medium and not helpful in my work as I don’t want to romanticise a story with process.” Thematically, his work is driven by contemporary issues that he wants to investigate and which can “hold my attention span!”
For Empty Community, the work sprung out of debates about what will become of our communities without the possibility of physical interactions or congregations. “I wanted the story to highlight the discrepancy between the ability for some to ‘Stay home, Stay safe’, whilst others don’t have the space to make that choice, whilst also genuinely questioning what will become of our towns and cities.” It’s through this explanation that the layers of Tom’s exploration become clear; the images in Empty Community, although seemingly simple, are vessels for Tom’s complex and nuanced feelings towards the current state.
Reflecting on the body of work more generally, Tom adds: “I hope that the images are hopeful in their tone but emphasise the emptiness I feel about our current state.”
Continuing his need to mirror current affairs in his practice, Tom is currently working on a portrait story with writer Ngaio Anyia with Ngaoi, Jen Reid, Cleo Lake and Vanessa Kisuule. “It’s a visual and written response to the Colston statue being pulled down during the Black Lives Matter demonstration which I hope to release with Ngaio as a feature to the national and international press,” he tells us. He’s also hoping to restart a project following on from his work in Chernobyl (which you can see some of here if you haven’t already!) with local writer Ievgeniia Gubkina about Atomgrads (Atomic Towns) and the surrounding story in the towns’ community. “That, and getting a dog,” he concludes.
GalleryTom Skipp: Empty Community (Copyright © Tom Skipp, 2020)
Tom Skipp: Headley Park Community Centre, Bristol, from Empty Community (Copyright © Tom Skipp, 2020)
About the Author
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.