A photographic journey into the heart of the lockdown

·4 min read
Keeping up appearances. 'I didn't want to become someone who just lies in bed all day and watches Netflix,' says photographer Michael Willems. (Michael Willems - image credit)
Keeping up appearances. 'I didn't want to become someone who just lies in bed all day and watches Netflix,' says photographer Michael Willems. (Michael Willems - image credit)

Ottawa photographer and business owner Michael Willems documented his lonely lockdown experience in a series of daily self-portraits.

On his way home from work just as the lockdown was beginning, he captured an image of his car in a deserted parking lot.

"I was the last person to leave Place d'Orléans on the day we shutdown," said Willems. "It was otherworldly."

Normally full, this parking lot at Place d'Orléans mall, just as the lockdown began.
Normally full, this parking lot at Place d'Orléans mall, just as the lockdown began. (Michael Willems)

Then, he settled in for the lockdown, not knowing how long it would last.

Willems would spend 81 days in a rented room, worrying about the fate of his newly-established photography shop in Place d'Orléans Shopping Centre.

Each day he took one self-portrait to document his experience.

"I tried to reflect in these photos my mood — and those of the country as a whole," said Willems.

Willems documented his lockdown experience by taking a self-portrait each day.
Willems documented his lockdown experience by taking a self-portrait each day.(Michael Willems)

Willems emigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1995, and moved from Oakville, Ont., to Orléans in August 2019 to set up his photography business. Six months later, COVID-19 derailed his business plans, but served as his muse for his portraits.

"Photos are extremely evocative. When I look back at [these photographs] I am right there again. And this will remain so for the rest of my life," said Willems.

'This was the first time in my entire life that I've done literally nothing for three months,' he says.
'This was the first time in my entire life that I've done literally nothing for three months,' he says.(Michael Willems)

It's his way of documenting what will become a chapter in history, not only for himself, but for his family.

Someday, his descendants will be able to point at his pictures and say, "this is what granddad did when we had the virus," said Willems.

Willems arrived in Orléans in August 2019, and rented a room while he got his business up and running.
Willems arrived in Orléans in August 2019, and rented a room while he got his business up and running. (Michael Willems)

In addition to taking the self-portraits, Willems spent his time on his hobbies: operating his amateur ham radio and sorting through his collection of wrist watches and spinning tops.

"We're social creatures. We're not meant to be sitting alone ... all day."

Willems making contact with the outside world as an amateur ham radio operator.
Willems making contact with the outside world as an amateur ham radio operator.(Michael Willems)

Willems made a point of keeping up appearances, including shaving, putting on a clean, collared shirt, and even occasionally wearing a tie.

"To keep up — even for myself — the standard. I didn't want to become someone who just lies in bed all day and watches Netflix, which of course I did much of the time. At least this made me feel somewhat normal."

Standards must be maintained. Or at least, anything to feel somewhat normal.
Standards must be maintained. Or at least, anything to feel somewhat normal.(Michael Willems)

Occasionally, Willems would visit his store to check up on the premises.

It was eerie, and "totally otherworldly," he said.

"There was a movie in the 1960s, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, and I felt like that — the last person alive."

Willems visited his store a handful of times during the lockdown.
Willems visited his store a handful of times during the lockdown. (Michael Willems)

Willems struggled with inactivity. "This was the first time in my entire life that I've done literally nothing for three months," he said. "Almost eighty days of doing nothing."

Willems wonders what we will remember about this COVID-19 era.

He recalls family stories of the Spanish Flu. "My late grandmother was born in 1900. She remembered the 1918 virus. She said, 'all I remembered were hearses in the streets,'" said Willems. "Never did I imagine we'd have a repeat."

'We're social creatures. We're not meant to be sitting alone ... all day,' says Willems.
'We're social creatures. We're not meant to be sitting alone ... all day,' says Willems.(Michael Willems)

When he finally returned to the store for the long-awaited reopening last year, Willems was a little rusty.

"I was wondering, do I still know how to operate the computers? It took only a couple of days to get right back into the swing," said Willems.

"Even though it's quiet now and there aren't an awful lot of people in the mall, it still feels like normal life again. So I'm delighted to be back."

Willems on his first day back at his Place d'Orléans photography store, after 81 days of lockdown.
Willems on his first day back at his Place d'Orléans photography store, after 81 days of lockdown. (Michael Willems)