This Photographer Staged Self-Portraits in Quarantine
“I think something about deliberately putting yourself in front of the camera forces you to consider the state you are in…”
Creativity takes on a completely different meaning in a global pandemic. The collective experience of being stuck inside our homes—and occasionally struggling with cabin fever—has resulted in diverse art projects left and right.
For Filipina photographer and graphic designer Sandra Dans, turning to self-portraits has helped her cope with the prolonged quarantine. With her design studio Supergiant & Co. she co-manages with her husband and her wedding photography business Off Kilter Studio on the backburner, she is only one of countless creatives, mostly freelancers, who have been hard hit by the coronavirus.
She shares this plight with her friend Polina from across the world in the photo series X Days Later. She writes, “The project chronicles the anxieties, claustrophobia, aloofness and unrest of a self in the midst of a global health and economic crisis.” It is a raw, unfiltered collection of self-portraits in the span of a month using every possible corner in her condo. Dressed in pambahay and makeup free, Sandra uses everyday objects to create rousing images, which inspire awe—yet remain relatable.
Wonder: Can you tell us about your personal project “X Days Later” you share with your friend Polina from Prague?
Sandra: Polina was my roommate for the last few months I was living in HK for my MFA. She and I were in the same program. We’ve kept in touch since we both left the city in 2015, and we commemorate that by once a year doing a project where we exchange photos at scheduled times over the course of a month. (We call that project, “Synchrocity.”) This year, with the pandemic and all, we decided to adjust the project to accommodate the quarantines in both of our cities.
At first, we were both kind of reluctant to “force” ourselves to be productive during such a psychologically taxing period, but I think we both have a similar artistic restlessness that needed a release, and it was nice to do something that gave our days a bit of structure—especially considering how easy it was to get lost in time at the beginning of quarantine. The pandemic, being global, gave us a shared anxiety about getting sick or our loved ones getting sick, and its effects on our businesses were pretty similar (she is also a freelance photographer.) It was just a natural transition of our artistic relationship at this point in time—from the Synchrocity project into this self-portrait work.
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W: With that said, what has life been like lately as a freelance creative?
Sandra: To be quite honest, our work has been dead in the water. My husband and I run a graphic design studio, which usually pulls in more clients than my photography does, and that just flatlined over the course of the quarantine. The disease has definitely had a tangible effect on my business ethics as well: I had to turn down a shoot recently, my first paying gig in weeks, because I started to cough the other night, and I’d rather wait until I’ve been symptom-free for 14 days before I risk exposing others. (Side note: it’s probably just allergies, but it’s probably better right now to be extra paranoid.) That’s quite a devastating choice to make in a situation that’s already financially fraught—and even as we struggle, I’m already someone who can afford to turn work down to avoid putting others at risk; it’s probably much more compromising for others in more dire straits.
My other line of work is in weddings, which have obviously been devastated by the pandemic as well. No bookings at all, and all my 2020 shoots have been rescheduled.
It just hasn’t been very good on our end, which is also why I can’t rely on my income work to create content, I need to come up with it myself. That’s fun in its own way, but we could really use a paycheck.
W: How has staging self-portraits and the very act of creating help you make sense of the pandemic? Has it helped your mental health?
Sandra: I think, ever since grad school, that self-portraiture has always been an avenue for contemplation and processing. Something about deliberately putting yourself in front of the camera forces you to consider the state you are in, the state you’ll allow other people to see you in, and what it says about you that those things are true. So, looking at my own images and deciding which ones everyone gets to see says a lot about my psychological placement.
It’s helpful to my mental health insofar as I get to create expressive work, and in sharing that work I get a lot of “me-toos” from my (small) audience—and building that community is pretty comforting. But I think it’s one strand in a web of things I need to do to keep myself afloat, which includes making sure my husband and I are always on the same page emotionally, checking in on my family and friends even when it’s difficult, trying not to let the looming spectre of despair keep us from getting up in the morning. That’s all various degrees of emotional labor, and every day is different.
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At the start of quarantine, I was so sure this would only last a couple of months, and that by my birthday in July, we’d just be laughing about that 60 or so odd days we spent locked up at home. But it’s looking likely that this will stretch out longer than any of us have anticipated, and the social/political unrest is also factored in, in a way that nobody had anticipated. So actually, I feel like my images are a little bit naive in the sense that they are so inward-looking and self-absorbed. Perhaps this was just where we were at the time. If I was going to do the project over right now, it would probably look way different.
W: In your blog, you mentioned that you tend to overthink your photos. What’s your process like for this specific series? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Sandra: When Polina and I discussed how the project was going to be executed, we only had two rules: take one self-portrait every day and send it to each other. The images we created didn’t have to specifically respond to each other’s images, but I did find myself turning back to Polina’s photos when I’d get stuck. She was probably the prime source of inspiration I drew from at this time, at least mentally.
Aesthetically, my goal was just to make sure my images didn’t look monotonous, so I used colored light to shift and alter the small space of our condo. Polina also encouraged me not to overthink—to not nitpick or second-guess myself and just focus on getting a great image rather than the perfect one. The point was to get ourselves out of the rut of quarantine and create work again, and not to create The Greatest Project Ever Made (which is definitely a problem I have—perfection over completion).
I talk in a bit more detail about the artistic and thought process in the blog post I wrote about this project here. There are outtakes as well.
W: Any favorites from the series?
Sandra: Days four to eight are when I hit my stride honestly! I think those images are pretty emblematic of the series.
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W: I know you recently got married—and before quarantine, too!—with your husband appearing in your series every now and then. What’s life like as a newlywed in lockdown?
Sandra: My husband and I have recently had to isolate from each other because of my cough! So he’s staying on one side of the apartment and I’m on the other, and we take turns eating and doing dishes and stuff, and I have to [spray] Lysol on everything I touch in the common area. This will go on until a few days after my last bout of symptoms. We’ve been married in quarantine longer than we have in “the old normal,” so I’m actually pretty interested to see what might happen once we reintegrate into society. Kaya pa ba namin mag-socialize?
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X Days Later reminds the viewer that no matter where we are in the world, we have this shared humanity brought by such uncertain times. As Sandra puts it, we may be in different cities but we have the same anxieties and restlessness.
Header Photo Sandra Dans
Art Alexandra Lara