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Photographer creates powerful time capsule of COVID-19

SELFLESS, a new exhibition documenting the lives of health and care staff at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, opens at RCP at The Spine in Liverpool on 19 May. The exhibition is open to the public from 19 May to 19 June (Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm), after which it moves to the RCP at Regent’s Park in London from 1 July to December 2022. Entry is FREE.

Photographer Jessica van der Weert spent days with healthcare workers in Northumbria and Brent – from consultant physicians to nurses, porters and volunteers – to create a stark and compelling landscape of the UK during the most terrifying health crisis of our time.

Van der Weert said: “On 12th March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. His words were sombre, describing the situation as ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’ before preparing us for the reality that ‘many of us will lose loved ones before their time’.

“Listening to the broadcast I was shocked by the PM’s words, but determined to capture powerful images of the frontline impact on healthcare professionals, while also documenting the social history of the pandemic.”

With financial support from the Jerwood Foundation and working in partnership with the Royal College of Physicians, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and ATMedics (Brent), the powerful portraits capture the stories of those who put themselves in the direct path of the virus, often with very little protection, by caring for patients as the country went into lockdown.

Supporting the portraits is a series of images taken in intensive and palliative care settings, as well as reportage photos with paramedics, a district nurse and volunteer workers in a temporary factory set up to urgently produce much-needed PPE. The exhibition is the first to launch from the RCP’s new northern home in Liverpool, The Spine.

“Before 2020 the public had never really heard of coronavirus," says van der Weert. "But only a few months later, hundreds were dying every day and thousands of people were contracting this silent killer. The response from the healthcare community stunned me – while we were going into lockdown and protecting ourselves from even the most basic human contact, they were putting themselves in the direct path of the virus, often with very little protection. Their dedication and selflessness are heroic.

“In equal measure I wanted to capture the enormous scale of loss, tragedy and grief. It’s a vital moment in history that has to be captured, to ensure that future generations will remember, and that those who perished would never be forgotten.”

Outside of the hospital environment van der Weert took photographs of people in the high-risk category who have had to endure months of self-isolation and loneliness; a Hindu funeral in an area of London and community badly affected by the pandemic; and a family from south London who lost both parents.

Van der Weert concluded: “We are now more than two years on and it’s important we never forget the sacrifices that have been made. Photography allows us a vital window from which to view these historical moments and my wish is that in sharing these images and stories now, in years to come they remind us of the tragedy that befell the nation and the incredible response of the healthcare community that helped us through.”

Read some of the stories from those featured in the exhibition below: