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How Photographers Brought Nature to Their Living Rooms During the Covid-19 Lockdown

How Photographers Brought Nature to Their Living Rooms During the Covid-19 Lockdown

With #OurGreatIndoors, pioneered by Erin Sullivan, photographers around the world kept the art alive with recreated canyons, hills and sea shores, all from their living rooms.

A starry sky, out on a barren stretch of land, stretched out in the open under the vast nothingness. Or, a winding stretch of mountainous asphalt, leading to a cliff in front of pristine, cobalt blue sea, and a top-down convertible. Sounds like epiphanies for what we would like to do once the Covid-19-imposed lockdown ends? While that may well be true, such scenes found a second home through the past few months, when most of us around the world spent our days locked up at home.

Through this time, nature photographers brought the outdoors right into their living rooms, recreating shots that would have otherwise been taken out in the wild. The project, that went viral under the #OurGreatIndoors hashtag on Instagram, was brought to life by Sony Alpha-certified photographer Erin Sullivan, and then recreated by numerous photographers around the world.

How it all started

In Sullivan’s own words, the project began out of a need to stay creative through the lockdown period, for her own sake. In an interview with News18, she says, “In California, we got our stay-at-home orders mid-March. Normally, my work involves quite a bit of traveling, so I was quickly confronted with trying to figure out how I could stay creative when I couldn't leave my house. I had the idea to create outdoor landscapes using objects in my house, and began sketching out a few ideas. I added model train figures in order to give the images a sense of scale. After creating & photographing the first few scenes, I saw that this could be a much bigger series and could be something that my community can participate in. I invited them to create their own scenes, using the hashtag #OurGreatIndoors.”

While the project branched from Sullivan’s creative spark, photographers across the world adapted to it in different ways, and that’s how #OurGreatIndoors really took off. It travelled all the way to India as well, with photographers taking it up in their own ways. One such photographer is Utkarsh Singh, who also happens to still be a student, and affirms that it is not at all difficult to take part in such trends. Speaking to us, Singh said, “It all starts with one simple idea, and my project ‘Homescapes’ is based on her (Sullivan’s).”

Like Singh, photographers around the world started giving their own twists and interpretations to create resplendent frames. Craig Shimala, a photojournalist and creative photographer based in Chicago, tells us that after he spotted the project on his friend timeline, who had shared Sullivan’s work. “As a huge fan of miniatures, it ignited a spark in me to dust off my collection and join in the fun of #OurGreatIndoors. I also wanted to put my own creative spin on the idea by incorporating video, time-lapse and stop motion techniques.”

For Edward Fitzpatrick, a young designer who pursues hiking in the Scottish highlands and photography as a hobby, the project came out almost from boredom. “I came across #OurGreatIndoors from Sullivan’s set while scrolling endlessly on Instagram. I was really inspired by the creativity of how people could recreate their adventures from home,” he says.

Arranging the shots

The real trick, as Sullivan says, was in getting together small items at home, which were otherwise likely to just lie around. Apart from that, the entire shooting process was almost uniformly not difficult. “Usually (the shoot) is not very difficult. The key for me is to have a solid idea before I even start to create the scene. I try to develop the scene in my mind and on a sketchbook, before I start building it. If the idea is well-developed, usually the shoot is not very difficult,” Sullivan says.

On this note, Singh says that he wants to build on the project once the lockdown is over, and is working with very limited resources at the moment. While that may be difficult, Singh states that the very fun of the project lies in creating frames out of limited resources, and that itself somewhat signifies the importance of the #OurGreatIndoors project at a time like this. Talking about his interpretation of it with ‘Homescapes’, Singh says, “This project for me is about the hopes and dreams of people like us, who love travelling but can't because of the situation. I’m trying to connect myself as well as others with nature, through this project.”

Shimala, on the other hand, had it slightly easier, since he used to apply miniatures even in his outdoor shoots. The real difficulty, for him, happens to be in drawing a line. As he explains, “I think the most difficult thing is telling myself that these (frames) don't need to be perfect. I have a habit of taking a simple idea and building on it a bit too much. My stop-motion campfire scene was just that – it all started around the campfire, and the next thing I knew, I had built a whole forest around it. It still needed something more, so I added smoke to the fire and a bear in the background, and the next thing I knew, I'd spent well over 6 hours on it.”

Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, ended up ‘borrowing’ his toddler nephew’s toys to satiate his creativity burst. “I feel like it’s been one big adventure from home – I’ve captured shots of the mountains, dived underwater and even captured scenes from a jungle safari.” Interestingly, Fitzpatrick says that whenever he recreates scenes from the wild, the final result is quite different from what he sets out to make. “I don’t ever put too much pressure on my creations. I started this to have fun during lockdown, so although I sometimes find it hard to match the vision I have in my head, I always try and find a way around it. Most of the time, what I set out to create completely changes by the final image,” he adds.

More creativity, less equipment

Sullivan, who primarily shot with a Sony a7R III paired with a 90mm f/2.8 prime lens, tells us that it isn’t even necessary to have expensive or sophisticated equipment to join a photography movement like #OurGreatIndoors. “It is absolutely possible to take photographs like this without expensive equipment. It's less about the gear you have and more about your creativity. I have seen people participate in this project using their smartphone or whatever camera they have access to,” she adds. Sullivan further calls out to all the young, budding photographers to simply pick up whichever camera is around them, and create any scene that can be made. “Don't be too attached to the result, or allow yourself to get frustrated. You have to let it flow,” she states.

Singh, for instance, created his rendition of #OurGreatIndoors with a fairly basic rig – a Nikon D5300 entry-level DSLR, paired with a 35mm prime lens. It is this that underlines the beauty of the project, and Singh further adds that the presence of manual modes and depth sensors in smartphones mean that with a little bit of editing, taking these photographs is very, very possible.

Singh’s voice is echoed by Shimala, who even states that despite having professional gear, he often relies on his smartphones. “My primary camera is a Sony a7R III, but I also shoot so much on my phones. I use both the Apple iPhone X and the Google Pixel 4, and there have been so many times when I’d load up a bag full of (photography) gear to go shoot around town, and in the end, only shoot with my phones because they're so powerful these days,” he says.

Fitzpatrick even states that he actually liked what many others created with their smartphones, too. “You definitely do not need any expensive equipment, and most of the ideas come from your creativity. Recently, I ran a challenge to encourage others to create from home using what they had available. People got really creative, and I actually loved some of the images more than mine, which were captured on an ‘expensive camera’,” he added. Fitzpatrick shoots on a Canon EOS 6D II, with 24-70mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4 lenses.

The importance of Instagram

With this Insta-born project, most of the photographers that we spoke to agree about the platform’s impact. In fact, Shimala even goes on to say, “I don't think I would be where I am today without Instagram. It has fueled so many ideas and connected me with so many amazing people through the years that I am beyond thankful for that.”

However, Sullivan, the creator of #OurGreatIndoors, opines that it is not a must-have for everyone. While she does admit that Instagram is a good platform to showcase work, she signs off by arguing that Instagram is not the parameter of success, which makes it an optional choice for photographers, even in today’s world.