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Portraits of isolation by Sonny Malhotra
Photography Sonny Malhotra

Intimate portraits of life in isolation, as seen through Londoners’ windows

Photographer Sonny Malhotra is capturing people in lockdown from the safety of their garden gates

Over the course of the last few weeks, it feels like we’ve all gotten to know each other a whole lot better. With little else to do, confined to our homes thanks to worldwide, government-sanctioned lockdowns, through endless Instagram stories, Zoom calls, and Houseparty sessions, we’ve seen into every corner of our friends, colleagues, and casual acquaintances’ homes – truly, there is no angle of freshly baked banana loaf that we haven’t gazed upon, carefully prepared meal we haven’t witness come together, or working-from-home fit we haven’t quietly admired from behind a screen. For many, either through setting up a home office around the kitchen table, or a simple desire to stay connected to those we love, switching off is not an option.

One person setting his phone down more than most, while still seeking connection, is Sonny Malhotra – an East London-based photographer documenting people in isolation. Cycling around the capital (usually not too far from his Clapton home) Malhotra captures friends and families waving from their balconies or peering through windows, gets to know a little about them from a safe distance, and commits their individual stories and portraits to his Instagram grid. With the project initially starting with him photographiing his friends, Malhotra explains he previously thought of images posted to the social media app as “kind of throwaway”, but in the face of the pandemic he notes how it now fosters a unique and valuable sense of community in a time of separation. 

“I resisted an Instagram account for ages, and used to think it was a bit of a disposable place to put imagery,” he explains over the phone. “When I started (this project) I thought it would just be a sort of passive documentary – you know, the idea of documentation is that you’re not supposed to interact with your surroundings or your subject, you’re supposed to just observe what’s there and not change it. But this has become really interactive, to the point where it’s become kind of like a community project, and it’s not something I’m in control of any more. It’s becoming whatever it’s becoming, which is actually really nice.”

With the stripped-back posts cutting through the noise of the endless stream of content rolling down the timeline, every image offers an intimate snapshot of life under lockdown and the different ways in which people are navigating this weird new reality as best they can. Among those featured so far are nurses working long, emotional shifts in London’s many ICUs, young creatives who have been furloughed, and small business owners struggling to work out their next steps. But while their situations, like those of millions of people around the world, may be difficult right now, the photographs are also imbued with a significant glimmer of hope, acting as a reminder that though we might be alone, we’re all in this together. 

Here, we catch up with Sonny, who talks us through the project, the people he’s met, and where we go from here. 

First of all, who are you spending isolation with? 

Sonny Malhotra: I'm quarantining with my partner, Lauren, and our dog, Gin. It’s just the three of us, and we haven't had any physical contact with anyone else for over a month, which feels weird. I'm at a point where, when I meet my mates for the first time after this, I’m going to want to make out with them I think. It’s been so long!

So tell me a little about the series you’re currently shooting. Who did you shoot first? 

Sonny Malhotra: So I was supposed to be going to my friend Ed’s wedding this month, which was postponed, but I had a gift I wanted to give to him and his partner. So I decontaminated it with alcohol and left it in a bag for a couple of days before cycling it round to his, where we did this whole over-the-top, socially distanced handover. As we were talking, I decided to take a photograph of them, but I didn’t really think it would go any further than that. But then I started shooting friends and acquaintances, and eventually strangers. Now, it’s kind of developed as I’ve started to focus on documenting key workers and NHS staff and so on.

What are you taking away from this project, and what do you hope other people will take away from it? 

Sonny Malhotra: I think at first it was about showing people having the same struggles as you, so like ‘I know you’re by yourself and alone, but look here are some others who are alone too, and this is how they’re dealing with it, and maybe that will help you’. I just wanted to make others understand they’re not alone. Now, through telling the stories of key workers, doctors, nurses, and others working for the NHS, I hope I’m able to also inform people of what’s going on to a certain extent. I’ve just interviewed an ICU nurse, and hearing her story was incredible. When you hear from someone working in that kind of area about rates of infection in hospital, and how many people are needing vents that then don’t come off them successfully… I think it’s important to make sure the human stories are being told in these times.

What are your plans for the images when this period of time comes to an end? 

Sonny Malhotra: That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot by the people I’ve been photographing! I guess it really comes down to whatever happens with the virus: this little project is quite weird because I don’t really feel I’m controlling much of it. The aesthetics of it are entirely dictated by how people’s houses look and where the sun happens to be when I get to them. There’s no pre-scouting or art direction, it’s just always like ‘here’s this person, here’s the window they occupy, and I better take a photo of it no matter how it looks’. I’ve got no idea where it will end up, to be honest, because it’s entirely determined by factors entirely outside of my control. 

I think it would make a very interesting exhibition...

Sonny Malhotra: Potentially, but when are we going to be able to have those again? (laughs). At the moment Instagram is its home, and normally I’d think Instagram is quite a throwaway place to put imagery, but in this instance, it seems like the perfect platform for it. It’s become really interactive, to the point where it’s kind of like a community project now.

Does it feel strange to be one of a handful of people documenting such a momentous period of history? Like, your images could well be studied in schools 20 or 30 years from now… 

Sonny Malhotra: It does feel a bit weird. You can’t really judge what will form a significant part of history until you look back on it, but the project definitely feels like it could be significant. There are a number of people documenting what’s going on, so whether mine will be among those that accurately define this period… I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out! 

How do you see the world changing when lockdown lifts and things go back to ‘normal’? 

Sonny Malhotra: I hope people’s attitudes towards each other will change for the better. But we’ll see how that goes. I don’t have much hope for humanity to be honest, we’re pretty good at not learning from things… but prove me wrong guys! (laughs).