“I feel like whether it’s man or woman, masculine and feminine, male or female, the most important thing right now is to be present. And that existence of presence in everyday life is something that reminds us of the beauty around us and helps us to be more observant of the opportunities or the hints or the nudges that we’re getting towards something that will make our lives more fulfilled – and hopefully mean more in the long run.”
So begins with my conversation with Tanya Rex, a makeup-artist-turned-commercial-photographer who managed to do the impossible during a lockdown: form connections. At a time of extreme social isolation, Tanya reached out to 30 teens from across the globe, asking them to document their lockdown lives through disposable film cameras – and The Quaranteen Project was born. But why this demographic? “I chose to use teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19 as I felt that this was the most likely age group to never have used a film camera, but could figure out how to use one with a little guidance,” she explains. They also unknowingly taught Tanya a thing or two.
“I realised how adaptable they were,” she says. “At a time in life, I think when most of us were totally confused about what we were doing, where we were going, what was why, what was wrong, what we believed, and what we didn’t believe, we were thrown into this huge pool that we haven’t really learned to swim in. And to have that on top of the stress of possibly being in the final year of school and moving on to college or hoping to get grades that will allow them to progress on the path they’ve chosen? They adapted to this new way of learning.”
Tanya sent out a questionnaire alongside the disposable cameras, and many of the teenagers admitted to their inability to focus at first, only to thrive once they accepted their new normal. “Once they got their heads around it, some of them actually excelled and realised what they were truly capable of when they weren’t being physically led by a teacher through life. And that adaptability was amazing for me to see and hear about. The other thing that I picked up on was that it didn’t matter where they came from – what culture, what religion, what financial background. Many of them said that all they wanted to do was hug their friends. And I think that says so much about society. They were from different corners of the world, but had the same longing and need. The word ‘hug’ put a smile on my face and brought a tear to my eye every time.”
Admittedly, asking Tanya to pick a favourite image from The Quaranteen Project is akin to asking a parent to choose their favourite child, but she obliges. “Oh, it’s really, really difficult – there were so many images that I fell in love with! But if I have to choose just one, it would have to be Afghanistan. And there’s a couple of reasons for this. I got the roll of film back fairly early on, when I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I sent off the cameras, I didn’t know if I was going to get two or twenty back. And I didn’t know if the images were going to be worth anything. I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. I just knew I needed that connection and I needed to be doing something that was authentic.”
An initial batch of 11 rolls of film were sent to South Africa for development. “They were scanned and emailed back to me, and I remember the first folder that I opened was Afghanistan. I started going through the images and I was just blown away – there’s this one image of two or three children in a tree at sunset in Kabul. It’s really beautiful. And I think because Afghanistan is a place I haven’t been to and a place that I’ve only seen portrayed in American movies, it was really interesting to see what came back. And then there were the emotions of it being the first batch of images mixed with the effort that was put in and the trust that was given to me by the teenagers.”
Considering the suspension of postal services and other restrictions, logistical obstacles were a given, but some locations brought with them a unique set of challenges. “I managed to get a camera to a refugee camp in Sudan – that alone took nearly three months to reach. And the refugee camp is about a four-hour drive from the person who received the camera. It was all done through a charity called Idris Foundation and, when I followed up, I received a message from its founder Imad, who informed me of floods in Sudan. He was apologetic and I was disappointed, of course. But I accepted it.”
Three months later, Tanya heard from Imad again, this time with good news regarding the film. But what returned from Sudan was so much more than a handful of snapshots. “The photos were mostly of happy, smiling children,” reveals Tanya. “The teenager there said she wanted to show the world that even though she lived in a refugee camp, she wasn’t sad. It was a beautiful reminder of how fortunate we all are.”
As the pandemic continues to surge around the world, Tanya Rex will continue to release images from The Quaranteen Project in the coming months, culminating in a travelling exhibition – provided the ongoing situation allows for it, of course. In the meantime, you can view a selection of the visuals, below, before watching the story unfold at The Developing Story.
Olivia, 16, Seattle, WA, USA
Nargis, 16, Kabul, Afghanistan
Aigerima, 15, Bishkek, Kyrgystan
Sama 18, Kushi 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Kristers, 19, Ikskile, Latvia