Laura Jane Coulson photographed friends reunited in parks mid-pandemic
All proceeds raised from the sale of 'Sweeteens' will go to charity Young Minds.
Cast your mind back to this time last year and perhaps you'll remember a fleeting sense of freedom. The end of the first national lockdown was in sight for the UK. We were allowed to see our friends outside, after having outdoor time limited to one walk per day since March, and 'stay at home' was downgraded to 'stay alert'. The sun was shining, the mood felt hopeful.
London-based photographer Laura Jane Coulson was one person who "felt this wave of excitement". Imagining the city's parks filled with friends meeting up for the first time in months, Laura asked Gabrielle Lawrence, casting director and founder of People-file, if she wanted to collaborate on a photo story to document this unique moment. "Gabrielle is so good at spotting wonderful characters and people, and we've worked together before," Laura tells me over the phone. "I called her and basically said 'Hey, do you wanna run around London parks with me?'" The resulting book, Sweeteens, is the product of two weeks spent biking around London's parks and photographing people with a fresh appreciation for the outdoors. "We both wanted to make a really beautiful timestamp almost, a record of this moment in time."
Gabrielle's expertise is in spotting compelling faces in everyday life. As Laura explains, "her whole casting process is very organic. I've been walking around with her before, and she stops people and will say, 'Oh my god your face is amazing'. So we just asked groups of people who we thought looked amazing and happy; both of us had our eagle eyes open the whole time. It was all about the people we were shooting. We wanted it to feel relaxed, unfussy, raw."
Through Laura's hazy, soft-focus lens, we see groups of people making the most of the days in-between spring and summer, lockdown and normal life. There's a focus on young people in the photos — something of a running thread through Laura's work — which was not a prerequisite for the photographer, but she found herself drawn to their "infectious energy". This, coupled with Laura's own excitement to be photographing again, made for a series of shoots with a tangible emotional quality, in which she and her subjects exchanged stories about life in a pandemic. "On a personal level, I just felt my mind fully open up again," she says. "It was such a special thing in the end because people were so up for talking, and I've never had that so much on a shoot before. After what felt like an eternity of being in lockdown, to suddenly be in conversation with people you don't know — we forget how much we depend on new experiences like that."
Laura, whose sun-drenched photographs appear regularly in magazines like i-D, Re-Edition and other international titles, had barely picked up her camera during lockdown — the unsettling times making for a (very relatable-sounding) creative drought. "In the beginning, I thought 'Right, OK, amazing, I'm gonna take photos on all of my daily walks',” she explains. “But it wasn't making me happy for some reason — I just had no enthusiasm to be shooting. Usually, I get really excited about shooting details and more observational things, but I didn't have that energy."
Whether it's manifested in a creative rut, or a feeling of intense loneliness and isolation, the pandemic and lockdowns have taken an emphatic toll on mental health, especially for Gen Z. Sweeteens' proceeds will be donated to Young Minds, an organisation that provides mental health support to young people in the UK. Among the many resources Young Minds delivers, it has also undertaken regular surveys to better understand how the pandemic has affected young people's mental health, finding that the most recent UK lockdown has been harder than the previous ones for the majority of 13 to 25-year-olds.
It's almost bittersweet to look at the photographs in Sweeteens a year later, as we emerge from another lockdown with the same hope, plus a little more caution, as before. With her warm photography, Laura hones in on the relief and fun that washed over Londoners as the city opened up again and people flocked to parks. Sweeteens feels like a celebration of sticking together and being reunited after navigating the pandemic's hellscape. "We want it to be a nice little positive reminder of this poignant moment," says Laura. "It's just joy — joy in its most simple form."
Sweeteens by Laura Jane Coulson is available for pre-order exclusively from Claire de Rouen, with net proceeds donated to Young Minds. Laura will be signing copies at Claire de Rouen's pop-up this Saturday 15 May, 2–3pm. More details here.
All images courtesy Laura Jane Coulson