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Behind the Mask of the NHS Worker: The 2020 Vision Project

Behind the Mask of the NHS Worker: The 2020 Vision Project

For creatives, capturing the times we live in has been a difficult exercise that can seem quite subjective. Trying to convey experiences through a creative means leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and so trying to generalise a shared experience between many people becomes a daunting task.

The impact of Coronavirus, however, has somewhat simplified what it means to have a shared experience – especially when considering our time together in lockdown.

Now more than ever, we can see how the emotions we have experienced since last March have become a uniting force for communities. These feelings have a resonating message which can be found in all areas of visual culture today: “Times are tough, but we have achieved so much. Let’s keep going.”

The 2020 Vision Project, created by photographer Sophie Sheinwald, is just one example of the tenacity and strength demonstrated by creative communities throughout the pandemic.

2020 Vision Project

A project that started during the first UK lockdown, the 2020 Vision Project sees portrait photographers from all over the UK come together to create a tribute for the NHS and healthcare workers. The result was a series of over one hundred photographic portraits of healthcare workers outside of their working environment – in photographer’s studios, at home, with family, or in nature.

The project is the brainchild of Sophie Sheinwald, an event and brand photographer based in Brighton. As the co-creator of various visual projects, including the critically acclaimed Generation Share, Sheinwald was keen to document the pandemic in a way that showed the resilience and strength shown by those on the frontline.

In our interview, Sheinwald explained the process of how “Something hit me when we were in lockdown one… I went through a lot of old photos, just sorting them out. I came across some artwork I did.”

This artwork involved a series of portrait photographs she had taken of some NHS staff near the beginning of her career. These photographs inspired Sheinwald to revisit the subject of healthcare workers from a fresh perspective:

“Initially, the portraits I took 20 years ago were hospital workers in their uniform. [This time round] it just made more sense to connect with the human story. What I was envisaging was healthcare workers almost trapped in their uniforms daily, in their PPE – which they still are now – and I just wanted them to have a break from that.”

The main focus for Sheinwald became the depiction of a visual story which showed the person beneath the mask, demonstrating qualities that we could recognise and empathise with through our own lives.

“Yes, there are plenty of photos with the mask. Plenty of photographs of PPE. We see that. We get that, and we get that it is important. But I felt that what was important was the human story… connecting with that individual.”

With the 2020 Vision Project, Sheinwald wanted to convey a message of thanks that could mean something for each individual healthcare worker as opposed to the generalised body of the NHS – a means of validation that recognised the unseen person behind the job role.

Connecting the Dots

Sheinwald quickly realised that for her project to gain traction, she needed to get as many people involved as possible. She already knew she wanted a group of photographers to share her vision, but needed to first build this network.

Turning to social media, Sheinwald put out a message asking for anyone with experience in photography, media, and events organising to reach out and get involved with the 2020 Vision Project.

The response she received was nothing short of huge, with photographers from all over the UK sending in their portfolios.

“I had like hundreds of photographers come on board. June and July for me were so overwhelming with enquiries. It was incredible… Photographers wanted to do something. They wanted to be part of something important, and they wanted to have something to keep their minds occupied at a time that was like ‘what are we going to do?’”

The support didn’t stop there, either. March saw Annie Murray, the founder of the charitable trust Horizon, come onboard to aid the project in securing Arts Council funding – launching the 2020 Vision Project towards its goals of securing a small exhibition by the end of 2020.

Getting to Exhibition

A monumental achievement for Sheinwald was being able to set up a live in-person exhibition in September last year. Featuring one hundred portraits of NHS and healthcare workers, the exhibition was held over the 26th and 27th of September in St. Ethelburga’s Centre of Reconciliation and Peace in Bishopsgate, London. Entrance was by invitation only due to Coronavirus restrictions, but that didn’t deter the excitement felt by Sheinwald and everyone involved in the project.

This first exhibition was set up with the intention of allowing everyone involved – both photographers and healthcare workers – to see the portraits before they went on show for the general public.

2020 Vision Project Exhibition
The 2020 Vision Project’s ‘Behind the Mask’ Exhibition , St. Ethelburga’s Centre of Reconciliation and Peace in Bishopsgate, London (Photography courtesy of Sophie Sheinwald)

However, many were unable to see the show in person, which encouraged Sheinwald to take the exhibition online later in the year. While having already planned to do this in December, the growing effects of the pandemic (in particular possibility of multiple lockdowns and the introduction of the Tiering System) proved an even bigger incentive to have something ready for audiences over the Christmas period.

“I had planned to put something online for the visibility of the people that took part, and it wasn’t intended to be for the public. But with tier systems in place and Christmas getting more restricted… We thought ‘Let’s do this, that would be a really good idea for people and their families.’”

One of the core intentions of the project was to bring people together during the uncertain times faced during the pandemic, upholding a sense of normalcy while celebrating the efforts of those who have gone the extra mile. In doing so, the 2020 Vision Project has shown how creative industries have come to the aid of so many during the pandemic.

Validating the Work of the NHS and its Healthcare Workers

Many recognise the fact that our time with the pandemic has seen many people step up to the challenge of working both on and off the frontline, but the work that has been undertaken by healthcare workers has been inspiring.

In the first lockdown, many of us were stood at our front doors, windows, and gardens clapping for the NHS on Thursday evenings. Hand-drawn rainbows also decorated many houses in dedication to the healthcare workers who continued to go into work while many of us were still at home.

We stopped clapping for the NHS as we shifted into summer and lockdown lifted. Despite the pandemic still going on around us, and the continued support given by healthcare workers, it seemed that public displays of support for the NHS had fazed out of popularity.

When I spoke to Sheinwald about the possible reasons for this, she reasoned that the novelty of clapping had simply worn off:

“What happened as people continued to do so and continued to do so and continued to do so – the novelty wore off. And the importance of ‘what are we doing this for’ – because we are indebted to these people – I think can be found in other ways of making tribute.”

While clapping was only one of the things that people felt they could do to show support during the first lockdown, the time since then has shown that there are other means of honouring these people. The 2020 Vision Project was Sheinwald’s way of honouring healthcare workers in a way that connected them to audiences as people, rather than heroes or NHS staff.

In our conversation, Sheinwald was clear on the need for continued support: “Tributes are necessary, and validation is necessary, and highlighting the importance of healthcare workers is necessary.” While clapping may not be the means for support now, it’s important that we continue to find other ways – especially in the creative industry, which continues to suffer from the lack of in-person events.

Now in our third lockdown in under a year, reminders of why we should continue marching on are needed. Connecting with people, through visual and written means, are a key way of maintaining morale and inspiring action.

“It’s important to shine the light on people because we need the upliftment. Now more than ever we need upliftment because life isn’t easy… I think inspiration is so important in this time. We’ve experienced Trump, Brexit – there is so much hardship in this world and it can make us feel at a loss. So it becomes about bringing people up and uplifting – this is my way of doing that, and it’s very important to me.”

Meet the People Behind the Mask

Since the initial stages of the project, which saw photographers inviting healthcare workers to photoshoots across the country, Sheinwald has continued to keep in touch with as many people involved as possible.

Her continued contact with both photographers and healthcare workers has led to the creation of the Behind the Mask Blog, which goes into greater depth in documenting each photoshoot and the lives of the people involved.

Andrew Marshall, Principle Social Worker at Marie Curie Hospice, Bradford

When it came to creating a portrait for the 2020 Vision Project, photographer Lisa Holmes decided she wanted to commemorate her sitter in the style of painted portraits from the 18th century. Looking specifically at the upper classes of society and paintings from the Grand Tour, Holmes created a scene which would show her sitters dramatically lit and sat proudly among curio objects.

I was very aware that many healthcare workers would not see themselves like that, but it was how I felt they should be seen. As heroes who stood up for this country.

Lisa Holmes in conversation with Sophie Sheinwald

Holmes also wanted each portrait to be distinct from the next, so encouraged her sitters to bring in items which they believed represented them and their experience during lockdown.

When Andrew Marshall came to Holmes’ studio, he brought with him bouquets of sunflowers. Andrew had organised a hospice-wide sunflower competition as a means of saying thank you to his colleagues for their hard work, creating and distributing sunflower kits so that they could have a fun activity to do at home. Andrew hoped that the sunflowers would be able to bring some joy into people’s homes, as well as convey his thanks for everyone’s hard work during the pandemic.

Holmes, on hearing Andrew’s story, was more than happy to include the sunflowers, resulting in a portrait that was completely unique to Andrew and validated the effort he had made to uphold morale during tough times. The sunflowers in his portrait are a vibrant splash of colour that reflect his continued optimism throughout the pandemic.

Kelly Anderson, Senior Staff Nurse at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary NHS Trust

Aberdeen-based portrait photographer Sarah Ferry was keen to get involved with the 2020 Vision Project as it gave her a new means of creativity. Humbled by the stories of healthcare workers in her local area, Ferry wanted to give her thanks by documenting her sitters with care and pride. This was when Ferry met Nurse Kelly Anderson.

Kelly was thrust back into action after returning from maternity leave – right in the middle of the pandemic. The week before her return to work, Kelly had been redeployed to the Acute Medical Assessment Unit, which dealt directly with Covid-19 cases. Despite being nervous about her new working role, Kelly was quick to adapt and pushed herself to continue working hard alongside her team.

Another driving factor for Kelly throughout the pandemic has been her family, who have shown her constant support during the past year.

My proudest moment was when she said: ‘Mummy I want to be a key worker like you when I grow up.’

Kelly Anderson in conversation with Sophie Sheinwald

This detail in particular stood out to Ferry; family was a driving point for Kelly, and so became an integral theme when it came to depicting Kelly’s character in her portrait. This led Ferry to create a dual portrait of Kelly: one in which she stands proudly looking out at the camera, and another depicting her alongside her children as they press their hands against a glass surface.

Ferry’s choice to focus on the hands of Kelly and her children was another way for her to convey her gratitude to the NHS. Citing it as a visual metaphor for the theme ‘In the Hands of the NHS’, Ferry saw the inclusion of hands in her photography as a representation of the strength and kindness shown by healthcare workers:

I thought hands represented so many things: strength, power and protection, they care for you, they are hard-working, capable and expressive.

Sarah Ferry in conversation with Sophie Sheinwald

Junior Adjepong, Maintenance Worker at Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, Surrey

A big part of photographer Kathryn Chapman’s working process is getting to know her sitter as much as possible before shooting, giving her an opportunity to connect with them beyond a superficial level.

Chapman’s sitter for the 2020 Vision Project was Junior Adjepong, a maintenance worker for a hospice in Surrey. Like many of us, Junior had found the beginning of the pandemic difficult, especially given the possibility that he could bring the virus home to his family. Upon seeing the ways communities have come together to help battle Coronavirus, however, Junior chose to stay positive and continue working hard to maintain supportive relationship with others in his workplace and community.

The manner in which everyone came together as one to fight Covid-19 really inspired me. The love and support from each other was incredible. I just hope we will continue to care and appreciate each other.

Junior Adjepong in conversation with Sophie Sheinwald

Chapman loved Junior’s attitude when they met and saw that he was attuned to the message behind the 2020 Vision Project; to bring people together and celebrate achievements in the face of adversity. Feeling inspired by Junior’s character, Chapman decided to photograph him at dawn. The image would capture Chapman’s vision of Junior as an uplifting spirit in his community, with the determination to tackle the oncoming day with a smile.

If you want to learn more about the photographs in the 2020 Vision Project, head over to the blog on their website.

Photography as Storytelling

When discussing some of the main focal points of the 2020 Vision Project, Sheinwald was clear on the fact that it was dependent on the collaboration between the written and visual story. The project itself was created to shine a spotlight on healthcare workers and their story, but this story would not be able to come into fruition without the support of the photographers involved.

With this in mind, visibility became a huge focus for Sheinwald. Not just recognising the efforts of our healthcare workers, but also the creatives who were just as eager to get involved in a community of people looking to uplift others. When people with a similar vision are brought together, they produce results which are extraordinary.

“There’s something about the story and the photo together. I don’t think they could be without each other and have the same effect.”

A photographer herself, Sheinwald wanted to be able to give other photographers a burst of energy with the 2020 Vision Project – as well as a means of promoting them and their work.

Photography is a vehicle for storytelling that can build on words and encourage an immediate response. Visually, we can connect with others and the world around us very quickly, but only those with a distinct vision can execute a story well. As such, the ability to tell engaging stories through multiple means should be celebrated.

“Anyone can go out and take a photograph. Anyone can. But you get a photographer, and they will put magic in… That has to be validated as far as I’m concerned.”

Looking to the Future

The initial plan for the 2020 Vision Project was to see all of the photographers’ work exhibited in the first half of 2021. However, with lockdown set to continue for at least another month, the goal post has now shifted: “Now my focus is on an online March exhibition and getting selected works projected in parts of the UK… Ideally, we’d like to project these images on healthcare buildings, but we’ll need help pulling it off!”

Nevertheless, Sheinwald maintains a direction for the project’s future, specifically its continuing celebration of healthcare workers.

“From its birth I saw a legacy, something that’s historic because we haven’t experienced anything like this before. So, going forward I can see it continuing, but I don’t honestly know exactly how and what shape it’s going to take. What I’m enjoying right now is highlighting healthcare workers… I think there’s something very lasting about it being about the healthcare workers right now. Right now, that’s where I still see it going forward.”

So while in-person shows are off the table for the foreseeable future, Sheinwald will continue to use her platform to highlight the work of incredible photographers and the amazing people they have photographed. With a digital exhibition in the works and regular blog posts on the 2020 Vision Project website, Sheinwald maintains that there will be content to look forward to and “more stories to tell!”.


The 2020 Vision Project: Behind the Mask has been invited to launch their online exhibition at this year’s NHS Staff Experience Conference on the 10th March 2021.


For more information on the 2020 Vision Project, click here.

About The Author

Charlie Colville

I’m Charlie, a digital journalist and Mouthing Off's Editor in Chief. You'll find me exploring galleries, listening to podcasts, and using the gift of the written gab to get my opinion out to the world.

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