By simply taking the city into their streets, people are doing their part in the effort against the health crisis. Photographer Michael Kirkham has spent the last month documenting these smaller worlds thriving on the streets of Wavertree.
Scroll to the bottom of this article for Michael’s narration of the photo essay.
The world is now an inherently a smaller place. In the age of expansive globalisation, few will have predicted this would occur with such little notice. Lockdown seemed to arrive swift, but fewer will have known it didn’t come near swift enough.
Beyond key workers, coming to terms with our smaller worlds will have been common for those confined to their homes, where we’ve remained for the past seven weeks. But while the tangible reaches of existence has contracted, the worlds which we locally share haven’t become deserted. With new, tighter perimeters applied to the day-to-day, our lives have become inversely more detailed. The localised lens through which we’ve viewed the past six weeks is a microscope of its own. The larger telescopic frame of the world beyond our streets is more pixelated than ever.
Our tangible worlds are now at home in our postcode. This isn’t so different for many communities in Liverpool. From the social enterprises in L8 to the snug terraces of L4, community solidarity is a core attribute of the city and those who call it home – both lifelong and adopted. But across the city, as we work, think and exist locally, the finer details of our immediate surroundings have stepped into a new clarity. Buildings seem to stand stiller and offer a closer look in the longer shadows of spring. Our daily heatmap of footsteps seem to be concerned with who and what is here, rather than there. We’ve probably never seen so much of our neighbours.
It’s momentary frames like these that become the subject of documentary photographer Michael Kirkham’s latest work: a series of photographs which show a city retreated into its streets, where seemingly every street has become a village.
“All of my photography work and bookings were cancelled [due to the lockdown]” Kirkham tells us, talking over the phone from his home in Wavertree, when asked about his initial impetus to begin the photo essay. The collection of images, which were taken within a few miles radius of his home, mushroomed from late March and were initially just as a means of coping with lockdown. As he puts it himself: “It was mainly to give me something to do.”
Kirkham is no stranger to heading outdoors and taking a closer look at his immediate surroundings. Since 2015, much of his efforts has focussed on his Urban Goals project – a series which has seen him scale the length and breadth of the country snapping football goals painted on terrace walls and park perimeters. Zeroing in on the faces in Liverpool’s anti-fascist protests has also been a consistent feature of his work. Communities have always been at the heart. “As a documentary photographer, there’s always a sense of analysing an area when you’re on a walk somewhere”, he says. “When out with my camera in the last month, it was just a case of taking snap shots; little things that caught my eye. Human interactions, moments that have been created by the pandemic, objects that have been left behind because of it.”
Wind back the clock to mid-March and the streets around us painted a different picture to their current slowness, humming in the taller sun. A tense atmosphere weighed in the air. Shops and restaurants teetered on calling for continued support or closing their doors for safety. Offices gradually morphed into living rooms. The notion of considerate British mannerisms lay in tatters as queues splintered and shop shelves were left hit as though by a swarm of locust. Karma was duly been served as we were forced to do our lines and queue for even the smallest of shops. “There was a bit of a vibe, a bit of panic” says Kirkham of his initial experience around Wavertree. “There was a certain edge to everything. You had people glancing in each other’s trolley’s with expressions of ‘what do you even need those for?’ That sort of behaviour was at a sharp edge when the lockdown was about to arrive.”
Once the lockdown solidified, the tension Kirkham notes relieved and streets brandished themselves clearer than ever before. There’s a palpable sense of acceptance in the stillness of his photographs of queues and vacated business. Instead, the former wound-up tension supplanted itself in daily briefings and reports from hospitals at the centre of the crisis. Our streets themselves bathed in an early spring, picturesque and unnerving, like pictures of the model towns used to test nuclear weapons. “It’s quite a strange and surreal situation when focusing the camera on the busier streets like Picton Road. It’s so quiet you can walk through the middle of it,” he says. One of the more striking sights for Kirkham was noticing the children’s climbing frames taped up and deemed out of use. Its metaphorical presence gave off the air of crime scene more than a deterrent. “It stopped me in my tracks”, he says. “It’s peculiar how the tape was enough to communicate so much about the lockdown we’re in, the way it was left unattended. I found it quite unnerving to walk around any part of a city where it’s so empty.”
The vacuous elements of Kirkhams’s photos are a common feature for most hubs of commerce. The departure of humans shouldn’t be all that striking during a nationwide lockdown. But it’s in the tighter streets where micro features of a new localised society come into greater focus. Away from shuttered shop fronts and supermarket queues, more front doors are being left ajar. Their communities are spilling out onto the streets at a safe distance, breaking with the closed off divide that bookends the normal working day.
For Kirkham, the weather has played a key role in bringing a village feels to the streets. “The first half of lockdown the weather was beautiful. We have a south facing back yard, so we were spending a lot of time out there,” he says. “But everyone opposite, they were all out in the front; talking with each other, neighbours having drinks over the fence, children playing at a distance in the street.
“My street is quite friendly. I got to know a lot of my neighbours when I moved in”, he continues, “but since lockdown I’ve gotten to know pretty much everyone. Everyone is chatting away when they get the chance. A lot more people say hello. You get the sense people in the local community feel like they’re all in the same boat.” Kirkham’s images show neighbours talking while perched on opposing pavements. In another, a group are playing makeshift tennis while wearing PPE. Even an image of The Edinburgh Pub, its proprietor adding a layer of varnish to its Victorian windows, could have been pulled from a sleepy Sunday in a rural town. “It’s mellowed a lot from the initial atmosphere, and I think you can see that in the series of images” Kirkham replies. “It’s been nice – in a strange way, once you’re over the shock of having to queue for shops and struggling to buy things likes paracetamol and toilet paper.”
For residential areas, unlike the city centre of Liverpool or its commercial thoroughfares, the presence of fewer people doesn’t brandish bare bones devoid of community. A quick look at the empty faces of Lord Street and Church Street tell you how much sincere community can be hinged on transactional commerce and marketing.
But it’s not just in Wavertree where streets have become villages of their own. Walk to the riverside of L8 and peer down each of the sloping ‘Bread Streets’ and you’ll see families perched on chairs outside their home, conversing with their neighbours on the other side of the road, children taking their turn to run the chalked hopscotch which lines the pavements running down to the river, where ever-clearer views of Welsh hills are seemingly in touching distance.
By simply taking the city into their streets people are doing their part in the effort against the health crisis. All across Liverpool groups have come together while remaining at a distance. From people running for prescriptions and shopping for others, to producing PPE for local front-line workers – such as the team at promotion company Circus and Chibuku. A community effort to match the mounting health risks has risen in tandem. While it doesn’t replace up the huge losses of life and livelihood that have occurred, perhaps there’s positives to be had one in the conscious drive to replant our streets as collections of homes within a community. “[Away from the frontline] it really has had a village feel”, says Kirkham, who intends to continue the photo series with portrait images of those living on his street. “You see your neighbours; you say good morning. People seem to want to tip their hat towards one another. The people who you wouldn’t normally see are out walking. You’re seeing new aspects of your community all of the time. There must be an element of this which is good, right?”
Photography: Michael Kirkham / @Mrkirks
These Covid Times: Michael Kirkham narrates the stories behind some of the images in his photo series
These sights really struck me on my daily walk in the Mystery park. I felt compelled to capture it as the impact of this on situation on children is unimaginable. This experience could define their childhoods.
I couldn’t stop myself from taking this one of a older man taking his chances against the virus in the hope of a life life changing win on the scratch card. Everyone needs a little hope in life.
This is an image of my daughter. I think represents how so many families are separated at this time.
I think this demonstrates the pressures on small businesses and how they are being forced to adapt to situation at hand.
I saw this one on a drive past in the car on the way to the shops on the corner of Penny Lane and Allerton Road. I thought it was a good representation of how people don’t always follow the rules.