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What the world can learn from Mattias Löw’s COVID-19 photo essay ‘98 Days: Frozen in Fear’

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay   | Photo Credit: Mattias Löw

In a series of confronting portraits, the Swedish filmmaker and photographer’s photo essay ‘98 Days: Frozen in Fear’ details the dread caused by the pandemic lockdowns

Mattias Löw has a dark sense of humour, typical of Swedes, he admits. On the phone from his in-laws’ place in Juhu, Mumbai, he shares that he is strapped down in India until travel bans lift and it is safe to head home to Stockholm with his wife Reshma. But the 49-year-old Swede gets serious when he recalls the behind-the-scenes moments of creating his photo essay 98 Days: Frozen in Fear. He was drawn to the project because “it seemed like an impossible mission now to socially distance in India”.

Mattias is no stranger to India, frequently travelling here since he was 19. Many years later, he married Reshma, a Mumbaikar, whose family the couple visits often. “My connection with India is not completely uncomplicated, though, especially being Swedish. I think of India as being a huge test in my life, and I always try to shed light on the the good and constructive stories here.”

He also filmed a documentary called The Indian Priest which released in 2016; it detailed the goings-on of Father Raphael Kurian.

Reshma and Mattias returned to India this February because Mattias was filming a new documentary in Manipur about a transgender group that has become a powerful role model in its society. “I wanted to show something with which even Scandinavia has not succeeded.” Mattias had first come across the group six years ago when he was in the Northeast filming for BBC Sweden.

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay   | Photo Credit: Mattias Löw

They were about to wrap up filming this year when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Mattias had headed to Kerala to meet Reshma who was pursuing an Ayurveda course there.

That is where the 98 Days project took shape.

What the world can learn from Mattias Löw’s COVID-19 photo essay ‘98 Days: Frozen in Fear’

Capturing emotions

While Mattias says the parts he has seen so far of India have been gripped by fear and panic, it is safe to say, so have other countries. However, for 98 Days, his lens is trained on those who are unable to avoid physical distancing either due to their careers or limitations. The series covers fishermen families, security guards, livestock herders in the city, petrol station attendees, and more.

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay   | Photo Credit: Mattias Löw

“The eyes tell a lot in these pictures, especially with so many people wearing masks over their noses and mouths. The people with whom I’ve spoken have an interior fear which I’ve never seen before, because I’ve always known Indian people to be present and optimistic.”

Mattias was able to photograph people in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Kochi and Mumbai. “Since I have been travelling just before and somewhat during lockdown almost every photograph is taken post-March 25 till today. I believe only two or three photographs out of the now-roughly 365 photographs were taken prior to 25 March, and that happened probably 23-24 March when the situation was somewhat like a lockdown,” he clarifies. The lockdown happened when he was in Kerala, where the police often tried to confiscate his camera — equipped with a hefty zoom lens — which Mattias resisted. He also witnessed a lot of violence against the working classes in these locations, which leads to his motivation to capture the fear in everyone’s eyes in the first place.

The project has been mentally and emotionally taxing for Mattias. In an effort to bring empathy for the working classes of the country, he admits that after each day of shooting countless images, he would feel drained. But he points out that he is more optimistic now than before. “At least I’ve been able to penetrate this moment a little bit more than I would have if I just sat inside. I’ve also been creatively and technically challenged.”

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay

One of the photos from Mattias Löw’s ‘98 Days: Frozen In Fear’ photo essay   | Photo Credit: Mattias Löw

He ultimately agrees that things are looking up for India; though he does not have a press pass, he says the journalist in him (he has an international press ID) wanted to leverage photography. He hopes that the photo essay will be a historical document for future generations who may not know the severity of the pandemic, especially with Sweden being diametrically opposite in terms of the lockdown, adding, “The world generally has a lot to learn from India, in terms of culture, food, history, the vedas, etc, but not really in terms of the present lockdown. I personally am quite disappointed with the severity of India’s lockdown, and the overall lack in seeing to the needs of a vast number of people in this country. Especially considering how ‘organic’ India is.” Mattias adds the Swedish government avoided a strict lockdown as there was a sincere belief in the citizens and their personal responsibility and civic sense; this trust sometimes bordered to naivety.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 6:17:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/what-the-world-can-learn-from-mattias-lows-coronavirus-photo-essay-98-days-frozen-in-fear/article31765790.ece

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