When The Roof Blew Off – Photoessay – Covid Lockdown

Closed sign during Covid Lockdown, from "When the Roof Blew Off," in Lockdown Cultures - Photo Essay - ProfJoeCain

(This essay was written in 2021 for a volume about the closure of communities associated with covid pandemic lockdowns. It began as a photoessay to document the closure of my town (Hove, UK) during the first covid pandemic lockdown in 2020. It morphed into something larger: part anthropology, part psychological processing, part … I don’t know what.) The photographs are my own. This essay and the photographs appear under CC-BY-NC 2.0 license.)

When the Roof Blew Off

I grew up on the edge of a hurricane zone. Each season we followed news about storms developing far off at sea. I grew up knowing about danger and risk. I grew up knowing the importance of preparation and escape. Where’s the nearest high ground? Is our store of drinking water fresh? Which walls are solid and which likely to buckle? Probability cones and path vectors decided whether we committed the names of those storms to memory or quietly left this for others to do. Most years, calamity lived in abstraction. We rehearsed our drills as if actors on imaginary stages.

Hurricanes take a long time to build. Once assembled, their character can change with little warning. A category three can rise quickly into a category five. A track north can shift fast to a track west. Calamities due for one county over can suddenly arrive at your own very tiny, very frightened doorstep. I grew up in a hurricane zone. I was taught to keep an eye on the weather and to expect sudden changes.

I remember the shock and disbelief on neighbours’ faces the morning after one specific night before, when a category four headed up our bay. I remember the darkest noon I’ve ever seen. I remember the water pouring so thick from the sky it seemed we had been thrown into a lake. And I remember the sharp-edged howling of wind above our basement refuge. ‘If the roof goes’, my mother said, ‘get under the stairs and hold tight’.

Amy Winehouse mural on Big Beach Cafe, Hove, from When the Roof Blew Off - Lockdown Cultures - Photo Essay - ProfJoeCain

COVID closures

The hurricane that was Covid-19’s first arrival in the UK reminded me of those storms from my youth. We watched Covid-19 come from far away. We committed new names to memory. We spoke about preparation and escape, mostly as abstraction and in the mood of theatrical pretence. Those conversations about washing hands and keeping our distance and skipping the commute were all conveyed through soft-spoken disbelief. It was never going to arrive. Not here. Not today. Not us. It just didn’t seem possible.

Arrive, it surely did. Three turned into five before most of us understood there was a storm overhead. I remember when the roof blew off. I remember begging friends to get under the stairs and hold on tight. I grew up in a hurricane zone. I was taught to keep an eye on the weather and to expect sudden changes.

The British government imposed sweeping restrictions on trade and movement near the end of March 2020. I spent this first lockdown period in Hove, an English seaside town 100 kilometres south of central London, with a population of approximately 110,000. I followed national instructions on restriction of movement, keeping mainly indoors and avoiding interaction outside a small family bubble.

Closed sign during Covid Lockdown, from "When the Roof Blew Off," in Lockdown Cultures - Photo Essay - ProfJoeCain - twoShutterbug

Government instruction encouraged one brief period each day for outdoor exercise. I used these opportunities mainly to walk the streets of my town. At street view, Hove felt empty. I found myself drawn into that emptiness, fascinated with the wreckage this hurricane had left. I remember the absence of motion, the quiet and the overwhelming feeling of vacancy.

I carried a camera on these walks. At first, I had no specific purpose in mind. My gaze quickly fixed on one image recurring in endless variety: signs in shop fronts with messages of explanation and disbelief. It would be trite to say I noticed an endless variety of ‘closed’ signs when so many shops were, in fact, closed. I was seeing more. I came to think most shops were registering absence with more than mere status updates; sometimes, considerably more.

Photographs accompanying this essay sample from a collection of over 350 images taken on the streets of Hove during the first national lockdown in Spring 2020. In some cases, I photographed systematically along the length of an entire street. In other cases, I selected for variety and visual aesthetic. A larger sample from this collection has been published online in conjunction with this volume. The full collection has been printed and offered for archival deposit.[2]

While on these walks, I thought a great deal about the act of creation experienced by each person making these signs. In some cases, pen was put hurriedly to paper, with seemingly little planning and with emotions unknown. In other cases, something seems to have kept the writer at their notice adding more words, prolonging connection, and avoiding a lifting of pen that began a walk into the unknown. When storms approached my childhood town, shutters went down and boards went up. The last few panels always seemed the hardest. Fixing those in place meant preparations were complete, and they’d have to hold whatever nature had in store.

Reading the signs

Studied as a whole, this collection of images from Hove in 2020 offers a resource about communication. I have organised this sample to demonstrate some of the strongest themes I observed. Crucial to their interpretation is the timeline of lockdown cultures in England in Spring 2020. These photographs capture the fleeting moment locking down and boarding up. It’s the moment of realisation that the Covid-19 hurricane was indeed overhead, and the roof was about to go.

Themes

Theme 1. Urgency: These signs show improvisation and rapidity. The images capture the moment of decision about closure. On most days, a simple ‘closed’ sign would do. For some reason, that was not enough for this day. The qualifications merit attention: ‘until further notice’, ‘for the duration’, and the like.

Theme 2. Preamble: Closure in a moment such as the pandemic hardly needed justification, especially after government mandates directed action. Still, many shop fronts found reason to preface their closure notices with emotive appeals and apology: ‘with heavy heart’, ‘difficult decision’, and the like. Notices with this theme sometimes extended explanations to express fear, dismay, dread, and sometimes anger.

Theme 3. Resilience: Closure meant an immediate stoppage in trade for businesses. The threat to cashflow and livelihood created, for many, seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Some of the images collected under ‘urgency’ and ‘preamble’ convey the kind of dread associated with closing a business under conditions that seemed indefinite and complete. A variety of closure signs expressed resilience and determination, asserting grip as a virtue: holding on and holding fast.

Theme 4. Shared humanity: Closure signs sometimes invoked ideals of community and cooperation. Others used this setting to assert the importance of treasured values and aspirations. These frequently came in the form of reminders about prioritisation and prescriptions to behave in ways we might idealise in calmer times as virtuous or good.

Theme 5. Humour: Humour tightens social bonds and offers a means for ventilation. Humour was rare in closure signs in March 2020. It became more common later in the closure timeline.

Unexpected absence: A curious absence in Hove was appeal to nationalist mythologies associated with times of crisis. I saw no appeals to Dunkirk, Blitz, or Armada as comparable instances of resolve and community. Possibly, it was absent generally. Equally possible, an absence in Hove reveals sampling bias of several kinds.

Evolution

Signage evolved over the lockdown timeline. The images in this sample focused on the moment of first mass closure near the end of March 2020. For all intents and purposes, some premises thereafter seemed abandoned for months, with no change to posted notices. This appeared to be the case for approximately one third of commercial premises in Hove.

For other premises, themes in the initial wave of closures disappeared and other types of communications arose. Reports of burglaries and vandalism, which rose sharply early in lockdown, led to a rapid change of notices to assert that valuables had been removed and that premises were being monitored. This applied most frequently to retailers of high-value goods, restaurants, and pubs. Contact details appeared on storefront signs to guide those needing urgent communication with responsible parties. The change was so common as to seem guided, perhaps by police or council instruction. Stores previously receiving donations, such as charity shops, typically posted requests to avoid depositing goods at the premises and informing donors of alternative locations for deposit.

Second, many businesses pivoted to online engagement. When replaced quickly, initial notices were commonly replaced with information about social media channels and digital commerce. For example, ‘Follow us on …’ or ‘You can still purchase goods through …’. Other notices provided instructions for remote availability, typically from estate agents, solicitors, consultants and gyms. These were present only on a small number of premises at the point of closure, but they grew in frequency quickly during April and May 2020.

Third, storefronts that adapted to new closure rules and re-opened frequently posted notices to steer customers toward safer behaviours and to identify restrictions imposed within the establishment. For example, ‘Only two customers at any one time’, or ‘Masks must be worn’. Typically, these were part of extensive new signage instore to manage customer behaviour.

Closed sign during Covid Lockdown, from "When the Roof Blew Off," in Lockdown Cultures - Photo Essay - ProfJoeCain - threeOne location; one moment

Studied as a whole, this collection of images supports a study of communication during a particular moment of the complex, multi-layered timeline of lockdown cultures and periods of mass action.

These images most clearly document communication during one type of extreme anxiety. Though specific expressions varied, they clustered into cumulative themes. Analysis of those themes helps understand how people in this one location and this one time conceptualised the challenges of pandemic closure at the point of initiation. It speaks to the ‘locking down’ bit of lockdown.

Comparable examples of this type of communicating are not difficult to find. One example leads me back to storms from my childhood, to messages painted on protective boards: ‘bring it on’ or ‘tougher than you’ or ‘prayer good; plywood better’ or ‘close gate after leaving’. Those signs changed, too, over the timeline of a storm. I remember after one particularly rough storm passed, and we children were let loose again into the neighbourhood. Quick to sprout were signs of triumph, tragedy and recovery. Now, as then, it is hard to communicate the joy I felt when seeing posted on the door of a local favourite shop the simple message, ‘open as usual; regular business hours’.

— Joe Cain

all photographs are copyright Joe Cain 2020. CC-BY-NC

Notes

[1] Not everyone had stairs to hide under. Let us not forget that many went out into the Covid-19 storm to keep vital things moving and to care for those in need. These admirable people put themselves at heightened risk, and some made extraordinary sacrifices. Those of us who depended on them are indebted.

[2] This larger sample and information about archival deposit is available from the digital resource <profjoecain.net/lockdown>.