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While There’s Space Between Us

"It’s about individuals, their stories and their feelings, right now"

Violette Ayad speaks to photographer-actor Jasmin Simmons about a new project documenting artists in isolation.

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Company: Jasmin Simmons
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Artists in Isolation: “A weird time capsule”

Date: 27 Apr 2020

It’s been months now since theatre makers began to cancel productions, halt rehearsals, and put upcoming work on indefinite hold.

The full extent of the damage that Covid-19 will have on our artists and arts institutions is still not fully clear, and there remains an understandable level of anxiety around the exclusion of many artists and arts workers from our Government’s response programs.

Simultaneously, we’re bearing witness to the repercussions of funding cuts from 2015, with many outstanding companies around the country losing their operational funding from the Australia Council.

All this to say that the community as a whole is facing some very real and very scary challenges right now, with a fair dose of uncertainty added to what is already an unpredictable industry.

But we’re also beginning to see just how resilient and innovative artists can be within a fluctuating landscape; who knew that a Zoom password could get you into so many play-readings, and virtual discos? In fact, who knew what a Zoom password was, anyway?

And there’s something really exciting about watching artists draw on their diverse range of skills and talents across all sorts of mediums and platforms to keep the creativity flowing. It seems to announce that we won’t be bound to the way things were, and we won’t be bound to what sort of artist we are, either.

One such artist, and general all-round boss creative, is my friend Jasmin Simmons.

A week out from its opening night at Kings Cross Theatre, Two Twenty Somethings Decide Never to Be Stressed About Anything Ever Again. Ever, by Michael Costi, was in its final stage of rehearsals when producers and creatives made the decision that it would be indefinitely postponed.

Jasmin, who was to play ‘Girlfriend’ in the show, was looking forward to sharing the production with a new audience after its premiere at Melbourne Fringe late last year. Instead, she found herself without a project, in a period of limbo I’m sure we all remember well, as she watched the city shut down around her.

Taking place across the following week and a half, Jasmin’s portrait series captures 100 artists as they move from life as normal, to the new normal of life during covid-19: closed theatres, social distancing, and job cancellations. It is titled While There’s Space Between Us.

With a bunch more free time myself, I decided to ask Jasmin a few questions about that strange period of time, and the process of creating this life-affirming project.

Jas, how did you first respond to the realisation that the show you were working on would not go ahead?

I think I found it more difficult when it was still up in the air as to whether it was going to be cancelled or not. I’m sure everyone who lost a show felt pretty devastated to not share with an audience what they had been working on so passionately. But, with so many people in the same boat, there was a certain type of comfort in that; I wasn’t alone. Being very busy with this project has definitely helped.

What is your portrait series about?

It’s about individuals, their stories and their feelings, right now.

It’s about creating connection and community in a time when many people are feeling alone.

It’s about being heard.

It’s about documenting this time … a few people have mentioned to me that as the world seems to be changing so quickly every day during this pandemic, the project is “a very strange time capsule”, so maybe it’s just that.

Why the choice to shoot artists at this time?

As pretty much everyone in my life works in creative industries, I was seeing the effect it was having on so many people emotionally with feeling so isolated, out of work and terrified about the uncertainty of the future. I just had the urge to document what artists were feeling and thinking and, in a way, ‘humanising’ what was going on by sharing personal voices, stories and faces, not just letting people become a statistic.

I feel that as artists we rely so much on the sense of community we create with one another. During this isolated time I wanted to try and bring people together through this project and make people feel less alone through the sharing of stories from individuals within our community.

How have you navigated the specific challenges that covid-19 places on taking intimate portraits? What protocols did you put in place?

It was quite interesting as during the nine days I was shooting things changed very quickly in Sydney. When I put a call out for this series, quite a lot of people were still working, the 1.5m distance between people had just started being suggested, people were only just beginning to self-isolate, and gyms and parks were still open.

From the first day of shooting I was staying 1.5m away from anyone. That became 2m over the nine days, and was making sure I was disinfecting all cameras and equipment after each shoot.

I just kept adapting, location-wise, and made the shoot as quick as possible, around 20 minutes. But, apart from that, and the strangeness of not being able to have physical contact with people, it wasn’t challenging at all.

I think creating ‘intimate’ portraits doesn’t mean you have to be close to who you are photographing. What makes it intimate is making the person being shot comfortable enough to be open and honest in front of the camera. Interviewing everyone before I shot them was extremely useful.

Did working with these protocols inform the artistic process in a way you didn’t expect them to?

This pandemic and the protocols really created this series. I was planning to shoot a different series after my show closed, but the way people were feeling and the effect restrictions were beginning to have on individuals around me informed the entire project and what it has become.

I also wasn’t expecting to be releasing the project in the gradual way I am on my Instagram, but with everything going on, it felt important to do so, making people feel connect right now.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve found in being a multi-disciplinary artist?

People understanding that I do both, and love both, and not one more than the other.

What positives do you think could come from this challenging time?

From the 100 people I have spoken to, and myself included, most people are excited to see the new work that comes out of this.

At the same time, as everyone in the world is so isolated right now and not able to enjoy a lot of the things we take a part in creating (theatre, concerts, film), as well as future work having to be shut down, hopefully there will be more appreciation and more Government support.

If there is a lack of work once all of this passes, hopefully there will be a realisation of its value when it’s missing.

While There’s Space Between Us is on show at Gaffa Gallery 281 Clarence St, Sydney, October 1-12.

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