‘The city has been a desert’ - Spring Hasn’t Come Yet by Raul Ariano - whynow

‘The city has been a desert’ – Spring Hasn’t Come Yet by Raul Ariano

In the midst of COVID-19, photographers around the world are having to navigate the unknown and find novel ways to work and document events as they play out. 

For the fifth of our lockdown photography features, we speak to Italian photographer Raul Ariano who has been keeping a visual diary of life under lockdown and the tentative return to normality in Shanghai. 

Raul was travelling to the Chinese city of Chengdu when the coronavirus first broke out in Wuhan in late 2019. In response, the government locked down cities and millions were in self-isolation during the Spring Festival – aka Chinese New Year – the country’s largest and most important festival. 

Returning swiftly to Shanghai, Raul began to document what was happening around him as the city he’s called home for the last five years underwent a dramatic transformation. 

As a city of 24 million, Shanghai’s streets are usually alive with people and traffic, yet his shots capture an eerie calm and shadows that speak of a collective unease. Unable to get physically close to people, he photographs them from afar, using the camera as a tool to overcome distance. 

In this series of abstract, brooding pictures, Raul wants to convey his feelings during this turbulent moment in history. “I let the city talk for me, express my emotions and hopefully [other] people’s emotions during the lockdown and its aftermath,” he says.

Raul, can you introduce yourself and tell us how COVID-19 has impacted your work, daily life and state of mind?

My name is Raul Ariano and I’m a photographer based in Shanghai, China, where I’ve been living since 2014. The virus has definitely impacted my daily life, as well as my work and state of mind in terms of paranoia, uncertainty and scariness as I assume the whole world is experiencing right now. China has been the first country to fight with the virus and I have lived that firsthand before it spread worldwide.

How long were you in lockdown for in Shanghai and can you describe what that experience was like for you?

After I came back from Chengdu, I stayed at home for around 10 days before I started to go out and shoot and take assignments around the city. The beginning was different in Shanghai; later on, the government made it mandatory for people returning from other cities to self-isolate for 14 days.

How did the idea for your Spring Hasn’t Come Yet series originate? What compelled you to document your daily life during this time? Also, as you often shoot portraits, how has COVID-19 impacted your work in terms of losing your ability to get close to people?

I started to photograph the first moments [of the outbreak] and tried to put together a body of work expressing what I have been experiencing during this pandemic, and trying to express more of my feelings than a classic documentary photography approach.

I tried to work respecting the social distancing measures and photographed in the most secure way, both for me and for the subject. My approach changed since I cannot photograph too close to my subject. I started to use a tele zoom lens, but trying to be more intimate with my subject has been a challenge.

I noticed you took some photos inside a hospital lab. To me, these pictures are hopeful as they suggest progress in the creation of a successful vaccination. Can you explain what exactly is going on here in the photos? How did you get access to the lab? 

I photographed an institute in Shanghai on an assignment for a French magazine. They made a task force to study the Covid-19 genome, but it is still in the first phase and as far as I’m aware no progress of vaccination has happened yet.

Can you describe how the atmosphere has changed in the city over the last few months since the coronavirus outbreak? What’s the situation like now in Shanghai? Is there a sense of things returning to normality?

In the first month, the city was a desert. The news of COVID-19 spread during the Spring Festival – the biggest festival in China – and many people returned to their hometown during that time; most of them have been stuck there ever since. Nowadays in Shanghai life has returned to semi-normality: bars, offices and restaurants are open but many restrictions have been imposed, such as it is now required to carry travel records wherever you go with a QR code, which has three different codes: green, yellow and red – only the green code allows you into those places.

Lastly, what are you working on now?

I’m still working on my project Spring Hasn’t Come Yet, as it’s still ongoing.


Rampa  They Will Be