“Covid was a new and invisible terror,” the photographer Aaron Yeandle remembers. “March 2020 was a very scary time, as we were just seeing and hearing about these mass deaths all over the world.” In Guernsey, where Yeandle is based, the first lockdown ran for 88 days, starting on March 24th. During that time, the artist and his wife, like many of us, were flooded with countless pictures of people in hazmat suits, watching from their apartment as the global death count rose. Masks became a part of their daily lives.
Yeandle’s work has always been rooted in history and culture, inspired by overlooked communities and hidden stories. Amid the pandemic, he found himself considering the heritage of masks. He knew masks resembling animals had been used in medicine during the European plague of the 17th century, but they’d also been used in countless other ways, many magical or sacred. Some communities donned them in celebration of life’s milestones, while others wore them to communicate with their departed ancestors.
During those frenzied early weeks of the pandemic, Yeandle set to work creating masks of his own. With his wife as his model and collaborator, he then created formal portraits for the Covid era, all within the confines of their flat. “All I knew at the time was that I wanted to keep myself creative for my own mental health,” he says now. “Furthermore, I wanted to capture the pandemic and our historical experience using a very different approach. In many ways, this moment of global fear and uncertainty was actually a very self-explorative time to be an artist.”
He emerged from the lockdown with PPE-19, a photographic series that has since been exhibited in England, New Zealand, Italy, and beyond. Even though Yeandle’s wife is the person wearing the masks, she’s embodying a make-believe character, drawn from the artist’s own personal book of folklore. She belongs to the ancient past, the distant future, and the here and now. “In a way, though, these are also self-portraits, as I was portraying my emotions and feelings within these ambiguous representations,” he admits. We asked him more about the project.
The essential gear of Aaron Yeandle
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Elinchrom D-Lite RX4 studio flash kit
Yeandle tells us,
“I usually use several camera bodies, lenses, studio lights, and modifiers, but to create the PPE-19 project, I was limited to my Canon 5D Mark II and my Elinchrom D-Lite RX4 studio flash kit. This was because most of my photographic equipment was in my studio, and I was unable to access it because of the lockdown. With that being said, I always use flash for all of my work. This is because it produces the style and the appearance I look for within my photographs. Using portable studio flash equipment is very important to me, as it allows me to have continuity with my work and gives me studio-quality lighting on location.”
Phoblographer: How did you first get started as an artist, and what drew you to photography, in particular?
Aaron Yeandle: As a child, I was always interested in the arts and the world around me. I used art as a form of escapism. As an adult, I felt a deep need to express myself through art and to be creative as part of my everyday life. I was drawn to photography as a creative medium, as it allowed me to see the world through the lens and capture fleeting moments in time. The camera gave me the opportunity to see my everyday environments in a new and enlightening way.
I first started photography when I enlisted on an evening course. I enjoyed this course so much that the following year, I left my job to start a full-time BTEC National Diploma in photography at my local College. Finally, I felt I had found something which really filled my creative vacuum. I then spent the next few years completing a BA (Hons) in Photography, a Master’s in Fine Art, and a PGCE.
Phoblographer: You embarked on this body of work in the early days of lockdown, when you–like many of us–felt overwhelmed by images of people in hazmat suits. How did your state of mind during this time influence your approach to this project?
Aaron Yeandle: I wanted to create a body of work around this historic and dramatic time of the global pandemic. At the same time, as part of my own coping strategy, I used my PPE-19 project to escape from my own situation and reality.
Phoblographer: What challenges did you face while working in the confines of your apartment, and how did you overcome them?
Aaron Yeandle: The first challenge was having enough space to set up my equipment; however, I am quite used to making small spaces work for me. I actually enjoyed the constrictions of only being able to use my flat. I normally always shoot on location, so it was a creative challenge. Only using my apartment allowed me to be innovative and imaginative with what I had at home. I had limited equipment and backdrops, so it was a great opportunity to experiment with duvet covers, pillowcases, and other domestic objects.
Phoblographer: Your wife modeled the masks for this project. What was that like for her?
Aaron Yeandle: She expressed at the time that it was very hot and claustrophobic in the masks, but she trusted in my vision and went along with my instructions. As she did find it hard to wear these masks for a long period of time, the shoot was created over a period of weeks.
Phoblographer: Much of your work is based in historical research, and you used cabbage to create some of these masks because of its historical use in medicine. How did you choose the other objects and materials for your masks?
Aaron Yeandle: Yes, cabbages have been used historically in folk medicine for centuries. They’ve been used to treat pneumonia, rheumatism, sore throats, chest infections, colic, and melancholy. Cabbages have also been used to remove boils and warts and to treat appendicitis. I used cabbages in these masked portraits principally because cabbages have been used to treat a few symptoms comparable to COVID-19. It became a reference to historical and natural medicines.
Apart from using cabbages, these portraits include found objects within my flat. Some of the masks are made from papier-mâché, which I inherited from a school before the COVID-19 pandemic. The flowers in the background of some of these images are a historical homage to the Plague Doctors of the 17th century, as their masks would have been filled with dried flowers and laudanum.
Phoblographer: Yes, you researched the Bubonic plague for this project and discovered that doctors in Europe sometimes wore animal-like masks as part of their PPE. Were there any stories you read or uncovered about this time that moved you?
Aaron Yeandle: In this period, diseases were believed to be spread through miasmas, which would have been bad smells that wafted through the air. The plague Doctors’ masks would have had a half a foot long animal-like beak, and as I mentioned, they would have been stuffed with herbs, spices and dried flowers, and laudanum. At the time, this was believed to ward off the spread of viruses and prevent the doctors from being infected with the Bubonic plague.
One of the stories from this period that I discovered was about a doctor called Dr. Rae. This doctor treated the plague victims in and around Edinburgh. Dr. Rae wore one of these terrifying outfits, and indeed, he did not catch the plague. The authorities of the time paid the plague doctors well for their services, as the majority of them were not expected to live through the bubonic outbreak to collect their wages. When Dr. Rae survived the plague and came to collect his wages, the administration refused to pay him. Dr. Rae spent over a decade fighting to get paid and was never reimbursed for his work.
Phoblographer: What do you hope people feel and take with them after viewing these images, either in person or online? Do you see them as ominous or reassuring? Amusing or disconcerting? All of the above?
Aaron Yeandle: The PPE-19 project has now been seen all over the world and exhibited with some very prestigious photographic organizations. It has been very interesting to receive feedback for this body of work. People have expressed to me that this project is menacing, disturbing, humorous, and astute. Others did not understand the images.
The PPE-19 project, as you say, is all of the above. I feel it is very important for the viewer to consider their own emotions and opinions when observing art; however, this subject matter is very serious and thought-provoking. This series of masked portraits captured the zeitgeist of our moment in time. I believe it hit a nerve in our personal and social psyche.
Phoblographer: Yes, this project has been exhibited widely since its conception. Could tell us about one of your favorite installations?
Aaron Yeandle: For one of the exhibitions I took part in, I created a large installation in a gallery space. The installation took the form of a mobile military virus laboratory. The viewer would start the installation by having the opportunity to put on a hazmat suit, PPE mask, gloves, and goggles. You would then enter the space by going through protective plastic sheeting. Inside you would hear ominous sounds and observe safety signs about COVID-19.
There was more PPE equipment to gaze upon inside and three of the portraits on the wall. On a small white medical table, you would see a microscope. The audience members would then look into the microscope and see a slide show of the portraits.
The reaction of the viewers was quite extraordinary. They loved the interactive nature of the installation, and they felt a foreboding emotion as they went through the plastic sheeting. They could not believe there was a slideshow inside the microscope or determine where the menacing sound was coming from. I really enjoyed observing the viewers’ interaction with this installation and seeing them react to their own different emotions, from fear to excitement and wonderment.
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