Shutter Hub member Sarah Ketelaars is a British photographer from Brighton, who recently returned to the UK after several years living in Houston, Texas. She has previously incorporated photography into her work as a journalist and social worker, but now works solely as a photographer.
Sarah’s work has been exhibited internationally, at the Photoplace Gallery in Vermont; in ’30 over 50: In Context’ at the Center for Fine Arts Photography, Colorado, where ‘Windows’ was awarded honourable mention by Arnika Dawkins and received honourable mention in the World Wide Photography Gala Awards, 16th JMCA.
The project ‘Windows’ was shot in Houston, Texas, where I was living in a high rise when the pandemic started. It’s a different experience living high up, floating above the city like a bird. Far from the street below you are part of the city and removed from it at the same time. My gaze shifted slightly to include glimpses of life inside the apartment: just me and my husband – isolating – safely together. I live with several rare auto immune diseases and felt especially vulnerable. The windows marked the edges of our new, smaller world. The presence of the view gave me perspective and the ever changing skies and weather were a welcome reminder that nothing stays the same forever.
Photography is like a meditation to me and it is my way of exploring the world. Ralph Hattersley said: ‘We are making photographs to see what our lives mean to us’ which sums it up perfectly for me.
I shot the first image for the Windows project the night before lockdown in Spring 2020. Finding myself thousands of miles from home (as a British ex-pat in Houston) and unable to see my family back in Europe made the early days of the pandemic particularly hard. Yet I also knew I was one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t a key worker or a medic or a grocery clerk, I was safe at home, as was my husband who was also able to work from home. I missed my children and family but I wasn’t alone, I was with my beloved. We were living in a small but beautiful apartment and though we missed the outside we had a stunning view.
Every day we got up at dawn for an early walk before the local park got busy. When we returned to the apartment and door shut behind us we knew it would be 24 hours before we went out again. We read stories of the virus tearing through apartment blocks in New York and feared the same thing would happen to us. Every trip out of the front door, often facing unmasked neighbours who ignored the signs about social distancing made me anxious.
The view had always been tempting to photograph but now it was everything. Inside was our small, safe world, outside was huge and unknown. It wasn’t an easy time to be living in the US. We lived through floods, hurricanes, an ice storm that left most of the city in darkness without power, civil unrest, the BLM protests, the election and storming of the capitol. One night we looked out of the window and watched as the staff of the Chinese consulate opposite prepared to leave, having been given short notice to quit by Trump. From our vantage point on the 20th floor we could look down into the courtyard of the consulate and see staff burning files. The road outside our building was closed off and full of emergency vehicles and news crews and we watched the smoke from the mountains of burning paperwork curling upwards into the night sky. Sometimes that year it felt like the whole world was going up in smoke.
Yet despite all this 2020 was good for me personally. The slower pace of life suited me and crucially, I was never ill. That year was the longest period of good health I’ve had for over a decade. Having the combination of time and energy to work was wonderful.
During the first lockdown I was lucky to take part in a five week mentorship with four other photographers from around the world. ‘For The Time Being’ was led by Serge JF Levy, a talented photographer and a gifted teacher. Meetings were held on zoom, a technology new to most of us, and we used our photography as a way of processing and responding to the pandemic. Work was shared, along with the raw emotions we were all experiencing at that time. Connections were made. We would all go on to complete projects which we exhibited together in the Brighton Photo Fringe in the Autumn of 2020.
Making photos during the early days of the pandemic I tried to capture the feel of that period, living in a beautiful, safe place high up, happy but never without fear. I remember the days punctuated by the sound of my husband practising piano. The light constantly changing with the weather or the time of day. The tension between wanting to stay indoors and the constant tug of the big, beautiful outside. The heightened beauty of life that I felt so intensely.
In the spring of 2021 we relocated back to the UK and the project came to a natural end. Houston and Texas had opened up again long before we left but we never returned to a completely normal life. Living with auto immune disease I waited until I was fully vaccinated before I felt confident enough to live more normally.
There are a few exciting things in the offing for the ‘Windows’ project next year, including a solo show in Brighton. I would also love to exhibit it in other places across the UK.
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