Isolation Portraits – Jackie Russo (Interview by Jay Bex)

American born photographer and designer Jackie Russo creating portraits of people during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown through video chats.

I came across Jackie Russo’s work in an article on The Guardian about her practice of this project in isolation. The article did not cover enough of the project, and did not provide me with the information I would have liked. So, I reached out to Jackie on social media to see if she would like to have a conversation, to which she agreed. After a long dialogue, planning around the obvious time zone differences between CDT (Mexico city) and BST (Nottingham). We decided to do a video interview and to fully understand her processes, to experience the exact processes she carries out with each subject. Then she would also create my own portrait for the series during the call. Partnered to her usual interview of her sitter, I conducted my own interview with her and made notes from the recordings which are detailed below.

Jackie Russo @jackieus Jay Bex @jay.bex.img

Hi Jackie! How are you, are you keeping safe and well – and who are you sharing isolation with?

Hi Jay – I’m doing fine and very grateful to be safe and comfortable in my apartment in Mexico City! I’m isolating with my two cats, Churro and Cannoli.

I’m sure the readers are as jealous as I am that you have animals with your during lockdown. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, how long you have been practicing photography, your inspirations, and anything else you would like to say?

I’m a portrait photographer originally from southern California, now living in Mexico, with a BFA in Photography & Imaging from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I’ve been practicing photography to some degree for about 15 years. I’m inspired by film composers like Ennio Morricone, Johnny Greenwood, Philip Glass, and Rachel Portman, photographers like Graciela Iturbide, Sylvia Plachy, Jack Davison and Erik Tanner, the colours of Mexico City, the banality of my hometown in California, and Sam Youkilis’ videos of street food vendors.

How have you overcome loss of drive, and motivated your practice during lockdown?

Frankly, I haven’t overcome the loss of drive and motivation. Some days all I can accomplish is making tea and worrying about things I can’t control. Other days, I feel productive and creative – I take advantage of those days.

Well, everyone loves a good cuppa Jackie! Could you talk a little bit about your recent on-going project ‘Isolation portraits: the faces of quarantine’ – how did this come to be?

‘Isolation Portraits’ is an ongoing series of remote portraits shot via video chat with people all over the world who are in lockdown because of COVID-19.

“I wanted to give the images the same aesthetic respect that I would give to a proper, in-person portrait, hence the background.”

Jesus Herrera, 28 Fashion Designer Mexico City, Mexico

I think the idea for this project was somewhat inevitable – a lot of photographers have been thinking about how to continue to make portraits while staying home, and taking photos through video calls is a natural conclusion. I first thought to try video chat portraits in mid March, and it was not by any means a fully formed idea from the beginning. Over the course of a few days I started doing test shoots and looking for subjects, and it developed into what it is now. The first iterations of the project were screenshots of the video calls, which were underwhelming, then I started playing around with photographing my laptop, which eventually turned into a full backdrop setup with the laptop on a fabric covered stool. I think this set up brought the idea to life because it gave context to the images. There’s a clear and obvious distance between myself and the subject, not only through the computer screen but also through our geographic distance. The little green light of the laptop camera on my end and the small picture-in-picture of me with my DSLR are clues that this was a live portrait session, but also reminders of the requisite sterility that keeps the subject and me from being together in person.

Despite all of that, I wanted to give the images the same aesthetic respect that I would give to a proper, in-person portrait, hence the background. The set up also renders the laptop almost as an art object, and helps recall the formal painted portraits of days past, which sits in contrast to the fact that the technological viability of these portraits is limited to this exact moment in history.

Left - Kristina Knipe, 30, Artist - New Orleans, Louisiana
Right - Jay Bex, 24, Photographer - Nottingham, England

That sounds so interesting; to give context and somewhat breadcrumbs to clues within the image. So, did you personally know the subjects in this project prior, did you ask them directly to participate or did you put out a general request for participants on social media?

The subjects are a combination of friends, family, and total strangers. I put out a general request for participants on Instagram, which was shared by my friends, and I started to get messages from people interested in participating.

It’s incredible how intimate you have made these images, despite you not having relationships with most. You touch on the human and digital connection in these images on your Instagram, and how they are a crucial relationship aspect to photograph in this time – can you elaborate on this a little?

From this project I’ve learned that I do not need to be physically in a room with somebody to make a portrait of them. In fact, it was remarkably natural to direct and photograph people through my laptop’s camera and microphone. Ultimately, while the images show very clear separation and distance between photographer and subject, the portraits are still the result of connection (both human and digital), which continues to be a crucial aspect of life, despite unusual circumstances.

“I tried to capture what this particular brand of isolation feels like, and how different people approach and react to it. Some people are alone, some with partners or families, some with pets.”

I love the variance to approach in each image created – the sense of unity between the subjects, despite obvious geographical difference and possibly even awareness of each other existence. You explain that the subjects are posed, could you explain this process and what you were trying to achieve?

Well, to put it quite simply, it’s a portrait series. It would be a very different project to, say, turn on a video call with somebody, ask them to go about their daily lives, and photograph reportage style. Basically, I just directed the subjects like I would during any in-person portrait session, with the added direction of guiding them in how to position the web cam on their end!

I am very fond of the imperfections in typology of each image as the series progresses. Is this a direct representation of the passing of time via lighting alterations, prop positioning, and the lack of equipment in isolation or link to the DIY nature of creativity in lockdown?

The imperfections in the imagery are absolutely the result of circumstance. I’m only using natural light, so that changes of its own accord. It’s less representative of the passing of time and perhaps more representative of the time differences between myself and the subjects – there are some images that were shot in the late afternoon or evening for the subject, but in the morning for me. The setup for the portraits also takes up about half my apartment (plus my cats are set on destroying it), so I do break it down after each day’s sessions. As a result, there are inevitable shifts in the elements at play.

These images are so emotive, and communicate such variances in psychological mind-sets. Do the portraits reflect a particular aspect of the sitter’s experiences during the pandemic and lockdown?

I tried to capture what this particular brand of isolation feels like, and how different people approach and react to it. Some people are alone, some with partners or families, some with pets. Some are working from home; some are not working at all. Some have made peace with the situation, some are grappling with anxiety.

I love the little summary accompanying each of the sitters, makes me feel more connected to them. The little descriptions/stories accompanying the images about the subjects – are these recorded during conversation over video call?

Each session starts with a mini, recorded interview where I ask the subject about where they are, what their situation is like, and how their experience has been.

“The ability we
have right now
to share our
imagery with
each other,
regardless of
our location, is
a really
important way
to relate and
connect when
we can’t do so
in person.”

Dorothy Smallwood, 64 Retired Woodstock, Maryland

Are you still practicing this body of work, where and what is it developing into – will it include other people all around the world, with different occupations?

Yes, ‘Isolation Portraits’ is an ongoing series that will continue as long as people are in isolation because of Covid-19. It already includes people from quite a few countries and with a variety of occupations, but hopefully I’ll be able to locate an even wider spectrum of subjects to participate as time goes on. I’m not sure how the project will change and develop, I think it depends on how the state of the world changes over time.

Could you discuss aspects of image making you are now practicing which were originally out of your comfort zone?

I’ve had to get way more creative with how I use and stretch the capacity of my equipment. I’m not normally a very technical photographer – my set ups are pretty bare bones, as I like to focus all my attention on my interaction with my subjects – but the type of work I’ve been doing in quarantine has required me to figure out how to make my equipment work for me. It’s definitely a skill I’ll continue to develop and carry with me into future work.

Do you think technology, photography, and creativity have been almost essential to help improve charisma through this pandemic?

I definitely think technology, photography and creativity have been critical to helping many people cope with lockdowns around the world. For those who have access to televisions, computers, streaming services and social media platforms, the work of artists becomes an emotional safe haven. The ability we have right now to share our imagery with each other, regardless of our location, is a really important way to relate and connect when we can’t do so in person.

What advice would you give to creatives struggling to create bodies of work during these uncertain times?

The only advice I would give to creatives struggling to create new work at the moment is to forgive themselves. Creativity is so deeply personal, and for some people, the current circumstances foment creativity, while for others, it is stifled. I think there’s a cultural expectation for us to be productive powerhouses at all times to be considered creatively successful, but that’s simply not true. If you’re a creative and the so-called creative juices aren’t flowing right now, or there are too many obstacles in the way of your work, don’t worry. Instead, look at and listen to and read things that you love, and those will serve as inspiration when you are able to make work again.

“This experience has taught me to just follow my gut and get things moving sooner rather than later.”

Left – Victoria Smallwood, 28, Attorney – Brooklyn, New York
Right – Roxie Xie, 27, Student – Wuhan, China

What are you going to practice after the quarantine, do you think it will change your productivity and how you look at potential projects?

I think the biggest effect of the quarantine will be that I’ll be more motivated to start projects quickly and just make them happen. I had several projects in the pipeline that I was taking my time on that are indefinitely on hold now. I tend to overthink my projects and take a long time to get them rolling, but this experience has taught me to just follow my gut and get things moving sooner rather than later.

This body of work is the embodiment of do it yourself during lockdown. Being a portraiture photographer, it seemed almost counterintuitive for her to not be creating images of sitters. This is evident through this unique project. The symbolism within the imagery is fascinating, she treats her laptop as the sitter, using single sourced natural Rembrandt and Chiaroscuro lighting styles typical in portraiture photography. Yet, she uses this on a product (her MacBook) with imagery projected of her sitter through video chat software. Animating the laptop as a living social thing to us now. The connotations visually empower the methods of interconnectivity within lockdown, methods typically demonised prior as applications of social disconnect, yet are praised as the contrary in the current climate. The portrait orientation of the images adhere to this, and the projections on the laptop being flat and directly parallel with the lens plane create an equal standing between subject and viewer. This partnered with the dark void backdrop induces the viewer to be drawn to the centre of the image with no distraction, just like we all are doing during lockdown. Looking to our electronic devices for safety, comfort, escapism, and connection.

I hope you stay safe Jackie, it was lovely to speak with you, thank you for producing and sharing this body of work – I hope to see much more from you and this project in the future.

Interview by Jay Bex


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