Julia Fullerton-Batten: Looking out from Within
GUP Magazine is media-partnering with Belfast Photo Festival this year. For the occasion, to underline our mutual interest in addressing global issues by way of photography and to make these works available to a wider audience, we have been given the opportunity to select and highlight a few submissions to the Open Call of the Belfast Photo Festival (now closed) from an already incredible longlist. We will feature these selected artists throughout the month of June.
The portraiture of Julia Fullerton-Batten (b.1970, Germany) is highlighted by us for its peculiar hyper-realism and cinematic aesthetics, characterized by surreal settings and dramatic lighting.
We sat together with Fullerton-Batten to discuss all the curiosities surrounding her project. Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fullerton-Batten’s regular photoshoots – with large crews of professionals – were not possible to realize, on which she decided to capture the lockdown atmosphere in her surroundings by photographing people in the area of West London. She advertised her idea in the local newspaper and received an enormous response. Suddenly, the project ‘Looking out from Within’ was born. This time, the crew only consisted of herself and her son.
How did the idea of starting the ‘Looking out from Within’ come about?
Covid-19 came. Life changed; we now know irrevocably. That first lockdown was extremely unsettling. None of us had encountered such a threat beforehand. I was numb but could not stand around helpless. I decided to grasp my camera and document the new daily existence of millions. I was bound by the lockdown guidelines, as were my models. That meant no large team of assistants and a minimum of equipment that I and my twelve-year-old son could carry short distances in our neighbourhood.
I advertised my idea on social media and through my local paper in West London. The response was enthusiastic and enormous, maybe it was for many a ray of light in an otherwise dreary and disheartening existence. My idea was to photograph people imprisoned in their own homes looking forlornly out of the windows of their homes onto a massively changed, unrealistically empty world. I chose the simple title ‘Looking out from Within’ to capture the essence of that time.
Since you had no physical contact with your subjects, how did you direct the scene?
At first, the connections I made were via social media in my neighbourhood, I also hand-delivered letters to houses I’d seen on my walks that looked interesting. There was then quite a lot of contact with the sitters prior to the shoot about wardrobe, props and the setting.
I am so grateful to all of the people who let me photograph them for this project. For those kind people who waited patiently, missed their mealtimes whilst I set up and let me glimpse into their private lives. Often, I turned their homes into a makeshift studio, by attaching the odd mosquito net or spraying water onto their windows – I would normally arrive with a suitcase full of props, such as fake flowers, birds, fairy lights and lace curtains.
Contact was made via email before the shoot and during the shoot itself I would often shout through the window, or we had contact through the handsfree on the I-phone.
“I tried to capture the quiet moments, the moments of just being, just looking out; a state of limbo.”
Most of the photographs are captured at night. Is there any particular reason that you chose to take pictures at this time of the day?
As time went on, I began to feel that we were all living in an Edward Hopper painting, I felt compelled to capture the loneliness and alienation the pandemic had brought.
In order to heighten the feeling of isolation I tried to capture the quiet moments, the moments of just being, just looking out; a state of limbo.
The windows are the barrier to the outside world, the safety net to protect us from the virus and increasing the sense of forced lockdown separation. For example, the composition of the hero behind a window is a picture within a picture, a story woven into another bigger story that perfectly sums up how I felt about the houses I walked past with people looking blankly out onto a world they could no longer access.
There is also a slight ‘film noir’ feeling by shooting in the twilight or darkness where the glimpses of lit interiors take over the setting and give the sense that the viewer is looking into a different world. Enhanced by artificial flash lighting, I make the protagonist stand out; lamps in the rooms were all lit and helped create an illuminated room.
As part of the series, you additionally interviewed people you photographed. Does any of those interviews in particular stand out for you?
I asked every person the same 5 questions. As everyone experienced the pandemic in a different way each response varied but was equally poignant. It is difficult for me to choose only one from the many responses. I have selected the following four as the most memorable ones.
Alice, Lockdown 1, Day 76 – This was my 26th shoot and I’d become experienced to the extent that I was taking more time in preparing for it. 11-year-old Alice (the sitter), her mother and I discussed extensively what she should wear for the shoot. We even tried her mother’s wedding dress on her. I liked the idea that Alice wore adult clothes from a ‘dressing up box’ and invested in some vintage dresses for the occasion; the outfit in the image was just perfect. Standing behind the frosted window it appears as though she is captured in a painting. The house has a large bay window on a corner building which works very well and was an additional bonus.
Kostadinos, Lockdown 2, 2020 – I knew him for many years as an electrician, he repaired my electric appliances working from his home. A few weeks before we arranged the shoot, I asked him to repair a vintage hanging bed lamp for me. He told me that he was long retired but knowing that I wanted to keep the vintage lamp instead of buying a new style one from Ikea, he said he would do it. I walked past his house nearly every day during my morning walks on the bank of the River Thames and I noticed the attractively large front window of his home. He told me that it used to be the shopfront window of his business.
Kostadinos always struck me as he had a remarkable presence, but also he was a bit of a recluse. He was reluctant at first to sit for me for the project, but after a bit of gentle persuasion, encouraged by his wife, I was able to convince him to model for me behind that window, the gateway to his home. I sprayed water onto the window to make it more atmospheric.
Tragically, Kostadinos passed away shortly after the shoot. In answer to my questions, he replied “I always believe in God. When the time comes, we go. Everything is in God’s hands!” I hadn’t realised on that evening that it would be so soon. His wife called me to let me know that he had died. She and I soon met and spent time together talking about his life and their married years. He was a very special man!
Penelope, Lockdown 1, Day 51 – Penelope contacted me and sent me pictures of her houseboat. The features of the boat and its location on the Thames excited my imagination immensely. We spent many days discussing her wardrobe together. Finally, I found a vintage bathing suit, dressing gown and swimming cap that suited the environment. Where Penelope could berth her houseboat was difficult to negotiate, especially laden with equipment – steep steps, and having to cross several neighbouring boats to reach her deck. It was only possible at high tide. My husband was on assistant duty that evening, and our combined strength was needed to pull the boat a few meters closer for us to board it. Penelope’s image has been of major appeal with my online viewers, published in magazines and was the front cover for the Hangar Brussels Art Fair.
Sophie Ellis Bextor, Lockdown 1, Day 53 – Sophie is a very popular singer and regularly appears on TV and at concerts in the UK. She and her musician husband Richard Jones have five sons, ranging in age from 2 to 17 years. During the entire lockdown, she performed live with her family on YouTube at her kitchen at home every Friday night. Her shows were watched by millions. I had the opportunity to witness one of these evenings when setting up my photoshoot with her and her family in the windows of their home. She considered it to be a perfect opportunity to do the shoot as she was already dressed up for her performance. I had to set up the lighting when she was still performing. I managed to avoid being caught in their filming by waiting for the film camera to be pointed away from where I wanted to go.
What experience has this project with the smaller crew brought you as opposed to your regular shoots with a large crew of professionals?
Shooting the entire project brought back poignant and nostalgic recollections of my early days as a photographer, shooting alone or with only one assistant. It was certainly a significant challenge without my usual team of assistants on hand, which usually number anywhere between five to ten assistants at a time. Instead, I found myself carrying, setting up and moving the equipment alone or with the occasional help of my son. Eventually, relaxed guidelines made it possible to engage the help of a professional assistant. Needless to say, it was a great relief.
“I wanted to record this surreal time in our lives, to record it for posterity, holding onto the memories of what we have been through and reflect back at some point in our lives of what happened all around the world and the sadness that it caused.”
Have you achieved your goal with ‘Looking out from Within’?
I wanted to record this surreal time in our lives, to record it for posterity, holding onto the memories of what we have been through and reflect back at some point in our lives of what happened all around the world and the sadness that it caused. From the resonance to my work so far, I am confident that I achieved that goal, but also that I managed to create a worthy body of art to portray the fortitude of people during such troubled times.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am presently in the process of self-publishing a book of the ‘Looking out from Within’ images. A Kickstarter campaign shall be announced in the next coming weeks via my Instagram.
Launched in 2011, Belfast Photo Festival is by now one of the leading International Festivals of photography in the United Kingdom. The festival aims to instil and inspire public enjoyment and participation by addressing global issues and by utilising the most accessible artistic medium and bringing it to new audiences in cool and unusual ways. The Belfast Photo Festival consists of exhibitions, talks, symposiums, workshops, screenings, masterclasses, portfolio reviews and tours. Belfast/various locations, 3 – 30 June 2021.