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Sonny Malhotra
Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

This London photographer is beautifully capturing life in isolation

By
Eddy Frankel
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Friendships are tricky things to maintain in the age of social distancing. Lack of social interaction just isn’t how humans are built, and right now there’s just not a lot of it happening. This weekend, I had to go borrow something off a friend. I left him a beer on his front step, he left me the thing I was borrowing, and we chatted for ten minutes, three metres apart. It was, no exaggeration, AMAZING. Just chatting face-to-faraway-face with another human! I genuinely left feeling giddy because I had a tiny amount of – safe, distant – human contact.

Photographer Sonny Malhotra knows how important all that is. He’s spent the past few weeks of social distancing using his allotted one exercise per day to cycle around the streets of London. His routes take him by his friends’ houses, where he stops to chat through the window and take a quick photo. The result is a series of portraits of people in isolation, but also of friendship in quarantine, interaction through glass, chatting from a distance. The photos, which are all lovely and all tell a different story of loneliness and survival in London, are brilliant snapshots of London in crisis. They’re funny, resilient, and a little bit sad.

Sonny is keen that people know he’s doing this safely and doesn’t want anyone to feel encouraged to go outside unnecessarily. Safety first, photography fans. But here he is in his own words to explain it far better than I can

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

‘I started shooting the portraits a few days before the government required people to remain indoors. At-risk groups were already self-isolating, people with no sense of priority were hoarding toilet roll and perishable goods, and social media was full of bored people already going stir crazy at home. As almost all my clients have suspended work, I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands, and I needed an excuse to get out of the house for my own sanity’s sake, so I started documenting friends and strangers lives through their windows. 

‘It's been a fascinating project so far and it’s changing day by day. For the first few days, the images mostly showed bored people happy for some brief human contact, even though it was through a window. Then, after a few days, that morphed into more fear and concern as the government introduced the “soft lockdown” that’s still currently in place. Lots of the subjects had lost their jobs and weren’t yet sure if there were going to be provisions in place to help them pay their rent. Now, as it looks like we’re going to be in this state for a while, I think they’re showing more acceptance of daily life indoors. Quite where this project goes from now is entirely dependent on what happens with this pandemic.

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

‘Normally with documentary work I’d do my utmost to avoid influencing the situation, but it’s become apparent that these interactions have been as important for the subjects as they have for me. We’ve chatted, from a distance, behind glass, for five minutes whilst taking the pictures, and from the messages I’ve received it’s seemed to have a really positive impact on their mental health and outlook on the situation, which is a wonderful side effect. 

‘My biggest concern with the images is that they’ll unintentionally encourage other people to go outside, or that I might accidentally contract Covid-19 while shooting them. I completely avoid main roads and parks where people bottleneck on shared pathways and other cyclists pass close by, instead sticking to quiet times of day and back streets, and I'm staying considerably more than two meters away from anyone else. 

‘I hope these photos satisfy people’s curiosity as to what’s happening outside and, when they see others experiencing the same thing as them, that they’re more content staying safely indoors.’ 

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Photograph: Sonny Malhotra

Follow Sonny, then find more beautiful photos of London right here.

And here are Time Out staff photographer Andy Parsons’s incredible images of an empty London

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