The pandemic has been brutal on everyone’s well-being. We’ve all had to grapple with massive changes in our day-to-day lives, and kids are no exception. Despite not having much of a voice in the public discourse, their lives dramatically shrank as they were forced into remote school and unable to see friends.
British photographer Bex Day gives kids a platform with her new portrait series, Children of COVID. The series captures 24 kids, ages 4 to 13, from across England. Each portrait is paired with a letter in which the child explains how COVID-19 has affected their daily lives, creating an intimate, direct, and holistic view of life under lockdown for the smallest members of society.
Day shot the photos over the past year, finding her subjects on social media, through friends of friends, streetcasting, and child modeling agencies. The portraits are familiar and affecting, at times heart-wrenching and at times heartwarming. Day took inspiration from photographers like Chris Killip, Sally Mann, and Joseph Szabo, to give the images a “fashion spin,” she says. She applied similarly emotive casting and lighting, to show how kids have grown up faster than they should due to COVID-19. She and stylist Adam Winder, through conversations with the kids and their parents, styled the kids in a way that expressed their personal identities. “I wanted the images to look emotive in my usual style, as well as honest, sensitive, and raw,” says Day. She also wanted the images to be timeless.
Capturing photos during a pandemic also meant different shooting procedures. For the most part, Day photographed outside. When it wasn’t possible, they would shoot inside with a maximum of two people—just herself and hairstylist Tommy Taylor—masked and six feet apart from the subjects, she says.
In all, the portraits convey the difficult time that we’re in, along with a sense of confusion and worry, according to Day. But they’re not just one-note. They also express optimism—”a way of looking to the future and staying hopeful.” That’s what struck her the most. “They were all so polite and sweet and interested in the conversation around the pandemic,” says Day. “Children don’t mess around and they will usually tell you what they want and what they think without hesitation, which I loved.” (She added, “they have a very short attention span and it’s good to have sweets on you to bribe them too.”)
Day also asked each subject to write a letter about their experience in lockdown, which adds a rich context to the photos. The letters revealed a few poignant commonalities between children and adults, like boredom, exhaustion, and missing friends, says Day. Another similarity between the children was that they worried about falling behind in school, and pined for active hobbies like gymnastics or swimming. There were a few silver linings—Day says some children described more time to be curious about the world around them. Two of her subjects, Casper and Louis, appreciated the fact that they had time for a cup of tea in the morning, rather than rushing off to school.
For Day, the portrait series captured snapshots of life, but it was also an important way to give kids the microphone. Now, you can read about their experiences in their own words. Children of COVID will show in the Offshoot Gallery in London in early July, according to Day, though dates are still to be determined.