Sleepwalking in Lockdown

Grounded: A socially distanced photo journey during a pandemic

In July 2020, I began a six month solo journey from the UK to France, and back again, in my 1998 Autosleeper campervan named Juno. When Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted that summer, my primary purpose was to escape the feeling of isolation and alienation that I’d experienced in lockdown; a feeling that millions could relate to, all around the world, segregated at home with phone screens in front of us for company and comfort.

I was in India when Covid-19 started spreading like wildfire in March 2020. When I arrived back in the UK to a lockdown in my home town of Bristol, I noticed that I could not stop feeling... exhausted. A strange sensation  followed me – it was as if I was sleepwalking. Concluding that I was spending too much time in one small room, I bought Juno in a bid to carve out a different space to work in. She had a bathroom and kitchen, so I was able to be completely self sufficient, as well as solar and 4G which allowed me to work from my laptop.

Coronavirus Wishingtree in Bristol
Tractor

From the beginning of the pandemic, I started taking photographs of Bristol in the eerily deserted spring fog. Finally, when we were legally allowed to travel abroad, I took one of the first empty ferries to France and set off driving, by myself, down the west coast in a bid to rid myself of this sense of inertia.

 

As I travelled, landscapes changed day by day: from green pastoral scenes in the north, past fields of bright yellow sunflowers, and finally, down to the barren heat and mountains of the south. And as each day passed, I noticed how desolate France seemed. Beaches that would normally be teeming with tourists were utterly devoid of life. Save a few hardy van lifers, there was hardly anyone around.

 

I spent a few weeks in August exploring the Camargue, with its broad flat horizons, strange pink salt ponds, and the wind and mist which appeared from nowhere. It was a photographer’s dream. Every morning I’d wild camp next to the ‘etangs’ to see flamingos gently honking to one another, and millions of red, orange and blue dragonflies filling the sky. With hardly anyone else around, I felt like one of the last people on earth.

Ferry to France

Eventually I settled near Marseille, and continued my photographic journey that autumn amongst the boarded up summer houses and inland ponds, with their crisp autumn light. I reflected that I still felt isolated, despite my trip, and this feeling of sleepwalking had followed me since the spring. When I looked at the landscapes, they looked like part of the dream, too. So it made sense to me to occasionally climb into the photos, to take self portraits of myself in the landscape, located within the dream itself.

 

I would not call this trip the easiest that I’ve ever experienced, despite the fact that I speak some French and have spent a huge amount of time in France during my life. Quite a few small things went wrong. I encountered two heat waves, and as a vintage van, Juno did not have air conditioning. I was evacuated from an out of control forest fire. I encountered unwanted attention from a man in the Camargue, and had to file a police report. This was on top of the fact that driving and maintaining a van whilst working for yourself is very hard work.

 

But it was still worth it, to capture this unique moment in time. The fact that I didn’t actually get very far inspired the name of the photobook that I created from this rather limited adventure – Grounded. The name is also a reflection of what I was trying to achieve: this idea that I could be more grounded, more myself, if I travelled.

 

I’m not sure I ever achieved that, to be honest. I have come to live with the feeling now, and to be more at peace with it. I know it will lift, and go, just as soon as the pandemic eases. And then we will all be left wondering, and shaking our heads in disbelief.

 

Did I just dream that?

 

         What was that all about?

 

                     What happened to me there, exactly?

By Samantha Brown