SYDNEY, Australia under COVID-19 – May 1st 2020

No matter your country, we are all now in the global village of Coronavirus sudden change. We have all been affected in every dimension of life by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Different countries have tried different paths. Australia and New Zealand have been, so far, amongst the most successful in limiting the virus’s spread, but at huge economic cost. The United States has floundered and I mourn for the enormous toll we see continuing in that great country. The UK, France, Spain and Italy have all had especially severe infection rates. The limitations on movement, meeting with extended family or friends, getting to work, having access to libraries, galleries and concerts, being able to travel overseas, or even across town, are an experience that most of us, who have not had the tragedy of war or dictatorships within in our countries will never have experienced before.

The southern entrance to the Sydney Harbour bridge, eight lanes, one bus.

Invaders and Disease Transmission
It’s 102 years since the world last experienced a global pandemic of such magnitude and of such rapid spread in the 1918-19 ‘Spanish’ flu. In that era it was returning troops from the European theatre of war that decimated Australia with the flu. It will be many months before the full picture of how this COVID-19 virus broke out, most probably from some other species of the animal world, across into the human race. It’s not the first time. Bats and chickens have been the carriers before. Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft warned us in 2015 of just such a likely outbreak. Few were prepared. Here in Australia, as we mark the arrival of Captain Cook 250 years ago in 1770, we are also reminded acutely of what people do who bring to the indigenous communities diseases to which those communities have no resistance or immunity. The Deputy Chief Health Officer of the State of Victoria, Annaliese van Diemen, said in a controversial Tweet yesterday, “Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror, forces the population to make enormous sacrifices and completely change how they live.” The statement reminds us that Cook’s arrival also decimated Aboriginal populations through epidemics of smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, influenza and measles,[1] on top of the deaths at the hands of invading troops. Around the world there are multiple other examples in history of introduced infection to defenceless peoples.

The Novel Coronavirus
When news reports emerged from China in late November 2019 of a new respiratory virus not seen before, my mind flashed back to the SARS epidemic more than a decade ago, at a time I was frequently travelling in South East Asia, Japan and Mainland China. Apart from thermometers and masks on arrival in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Beijing, there was very little spread, despite the great severity of the disease. This time the spread came quickly through world travellers, not least on our Australian shores from cruise ships, which provided almost perfect incubation labs for spreadable disease. When social distancing was no longer enough to halt the spread in Australia almost entirely started by returning travellers, a Level-3 lockdown was established early in April, killing off Easter family gatherings and the chance to take a late autumn holiday to replace the holidays that East Coast Australians never had this last summer, due to catastrophic bush fires that burned more than six million hectares of our land. This is the double hit that has made things so tough here in Australia. The long term effect on people’s mental health, their wellbeing and their economic survival is certainly the most severe situation many have experienced in a century.

Documenting Moments in Time unlikely to be repeated soon
If you were alive at the time, you’ll remember the photos of Jacqueline Kennedy slumped over her husband, the President of the United States, John F Kennedy, in the speeding car in Dallas near the now infamous grassy knoll. You remember the picture of the elegantly dressed African American lady in New York covered in World Trade Centre masonry dust; Marcy Borders. She died of stomach cancer in 2015, often attributed to the ingested dust from the WTC. You may also remember stark pictures of total desolation in Banda Aceh in Indonesia, after the massive Christmas 2004 Tsunami. Those pictures were made by Australian photographers Mike Bowers and Jason South just 10 days later. It took all that time for rescue crews to get through to that remote western tip of the archipelago.

News Photographs often concentrate on major bad news; it’s the nature of the business. Television news does too, so long as they have “vision.” Of course they cover so much more, too. As magazines shrink in number the world over, and space for funded long-term photo essays declines to almost zero, it falls to individuals to take key moments in history and record them for posterity and hope to find a way of funding these stories in novel ways. Because, as with writers from earlier times who diarised and recorded events for later use by historians, so it is with photography: We can create a critical historic record of how things appeared at a particular time. But we have to make the effort or the moment is gone.

A lifetime of preparation and learning
As an individual who has spent a lifetime working with professional photographers, especially photojournalists, it has been drilled into me just how valuable and important the visual record is in helping others assess environments, events and relationships in the images they can study. I was fortunate to know and learn from Australia’s first post-WW2 international photojournalist, David Moore, who left Australia’s shores in 1951 to work his trade for The Observer and Daily Telegraph in London, before returning almost a decade later to Australia. In his lifetime (he sadly died far too early in 2003) -he would often return to venues he had photographed in earlier times. As a result, there is a documentary sequence of change over time. This informs future generations of how adapting spaces and places to the changing needs of new larger populations was carried out, and the resulting built environment. Moore also documented, under comission together with fellow Australian photographer Max Dupain, the building of the Sydney Opera House. He photographeed other major industrial builds, merchant fleets sailing the seas, and recorded the building of the Anzac Bridge in Sydney, by Baulderstone Hornibrooke Engineering in the 1990’s.[2]

The Pandemic hits
On March 19, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. Australia had called this and announced its own judgement two weeks earlier, upgrading to a second level of health caution, preventing the virus’ spread. In doing so the government and health advisors saved hundreds of lives. By March 29, more national Australian restrictions were announced. COVID-19 meant, in the State of New South Wales, that people were required to stay at home unless work, medical appointments, essential shopping or moving-house was involved. Schools remained open for the children of essential workers. Universities and most offices closed. The new life of working from home now applied to millions. This loose lockdown (compared to China or Italy) was a challenge to the documentary photographer, but a signal to prepare for work.

Photography has been my work since 1971 in one form or another. I knew that Sydney, like other cities would exhibit a new side to itself, suggesting new visual stories during this time. I had seen the eerie and wonderful work of UK photographer Giles Christopher made in March on the Internet. Living in a lovely country town some 110km south of Sydney I knew that daytime images of Sydney for me would not be easy, so I chose to create images at night, combining visits to Sydney with a move from an apartment we had rented over four years, and which now was a liability for what appeared would be six months of broad isolation.

People have said that because of my advanced years, this was risky and foolhardy. I am fortunate to have good friends in medicine. I sought advice from medical professionals and took enormous precautions to both protect others and myself. Masks, visors, sanitising gels, gloves, no contact with others, no use of public transport. When I returned home, I sanitised door knobs, placed all clothing in the wash and showered in medical anti-microbial suds. Hopefully I met best practice standards and worked to ensure no further spread. My greatest alarm was pacing runners who I quickly learned to avoid and turn away from, at the time they passed and a few seconds afterwards.

What follows is a small selection of the images made through April 2020, over five separate evenings and one daytime shoot. The latter coincided with the appointment of an administrator of Australia’s second airline, Virgin Australia, which faced collapse under the financial pressures of almost no flights and a grounded fleet. Visiting the Virgin Australia terminal that morning and seeing those Virgin employees milling around
was deeply distressing and brought home the reality of the economic impact on so many from this terrible virus.

I don’t ask you to enjoy these pictures. I didn’t enjoy making them. I hope what I recorded never occurs again. But likely it will, Increasingly often in a world where man has over-reached his influence on nature. I do suggest you reflect on what the built environment in cities means to you, what it might mean differently in years to come and how the things you felt were precious and important before COVID-19 might assemble as different priorities going forward. As ever comments are welcomed. The site is moderated so any response will not appear immediately.

The largest pedestrian space in Sydney, Martin Place, and a principle train station.
The Rocks, Sydney – A hub for social get togethers, dinners and great bars
The Overseas Passenger Terminal, with Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background, source of the greatest number of returning traveller COVID-19 cases aboard Cruise Ships
The Circular Quay ferry terminal normally bustling with diners in the City returning home
Lower George Street, home of some of Sydney’s best older downtown hotels and bars

College Street, by St. Marys Cathedral, a primary cross route through town
Looking South from the Passenger terminal towards the City of Sydney
Central Train Station at Rush Hour
The approach to the Sydney Opera House, East Circular Quay
Under the Sydney Harbour Bridge looking towards The Sydney Opera House with lone guard
Sydney’s normally bustling William Street to the Eastern Suburbs
Sydney’s recently launched Light Rail (Tram) along the City’s busiest street at 9.00pm
Hub of what used to be Sydney’;s Night life, King’s Cross rail station
Still Cooking late into the night in Chinatown
Waiting for takeaway orders on Hay Street, Chinatown
Market City Tram stops at dinner time

All pictures and Text are Copyright John Swainston, 2020.
All rights reserved. No reproduction without express permission.

[1] Peter J Dowling, January 1997 Doctoral Thesis, Australian National University, & State Library of NSW.

[2] To Build a Bridge, David Moore, 1996, Chapter & Verse,
ISBN 0 947322 10 8,

3 thoughts on “SYDNEY, Australia under COVID-19 – May 1st 2020”

  1. A good read – thoughtful, informative, gracious. It canvasses themes that are confronting in both its text and imagery. As has happened in other media the impact of the COVID-19 on our society and its urban form and functions is the “stuff” of history and it is pleasing that a book is planned by John Swainston that places is wonderful images together as an anthology of significant historical value.

  2. John,
    Thank you for capturing the images and for your documentary during these uncharted times. I hope you, Marie-Alice and all your family are keeping well. Please let me know when the book is available.

  3. Well expressed with words as well as John’s powerful monochromatic imagery (except for the coloured tram) and which to me imparts a ominous feeling of woe and sadness. An outstanding record of historic times indeed.

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