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My lockdown: Photographing my newborn through the hospital window

Ben Davis is a freelance photographer from Peterborough. He lives with partner Alice, and daughters Poppy and Laurel.
Alice and little Laurel - one of the few glimpses Ben got of his new daughter in the first week.

Work is changing as time goes on. I did a calculation on my annual wedding income for those booked in - a 93% decline in income this year due to all the cancellations and postponements. That number would have also been boosted by ones that book later. Some have come in, but the ones that have are only for a few hours, rather than full days so there’s a big financial shortfall.

I had one booked a few weeks ago but then the 15 guests rather than 30 rule came in so they cancelled and I had to refund their money back. It would just have been impossible for them. I'm already getting weddings for next year cancelled until 2022 because people are nervous. These are weddings that were scheduled for July but people still don't think they'll be able to have the wedding they want then.

Fifteen people for weddings seems so arbitrary and limiting. Weddings are so easy for track and trace, and could be done in Covid-secure venues. If the cap was increased to fifty guests then I'm sure many more weddings to go ahead.

I did have some work. Some of my commercial stuff still happened during hard lockdown, but it was smaller jobs, mainly product photography. Most were shot from home, and some businesses were still open, so if I couldn't work from home I went to them - that was always the guidance. People got confused with keyworkers and the rules about whether things were essentialovr not - but anyone who couldn't work from home was still permitted to earn a living.

A lot of regular clients stopped. Some have slowly started back up again but they’ve been badly impacted by lockdown themselves and the bulk of my previous bread and butter income has been reduced to crumbs. I have been able to pick up a couple of new clients though so it’s not all doom and gloom. 

To adapt my business I've invested in 360 virtual tour photography, aimed at property marketing and for businesses who want to showcase their interiors such as hotels, restaurants, tourism and leisure. However due to the hospitality restrictions and stuttering economy, it's really only property marketing where this is viable at the moment.

However virtual tour photography is good for this Covid world where fewer people are venturing out, and it’s especially good for estate agents as prospective buyers can view and tour a property from their phone or comfort of home. So while uptake may be slow currently it's sure to be a more relevant form of visual marketing during this 'new normal', and I'll be in a position to offer services to the hospitality and leisure industries when they are fully opened up and back on their feet.

I was grateful that I qualified for the government income support scheme (SEISS grant), and had money banked from previous years. I only pay myself what I need to live and the rest is put aside for a pension, or a house move in the future. So I was lucky I didn’t have to be too concerned about money as such – I could tread water for a while on a reduced income –   there's never been a serious worry about putting food on the table.

We were considering a house move and had looked at a couple of places but hadn't quite got as far as looking at the mortgage yet. We've now had to completely rethink that, because we have no idea how long this would go on, and we couldn't afford the bigger mortgage if my business doesn’t recover.

If we'd made that move two years ago we would have been in real trouble now - we would have had no financial fat reserves to live on as it would’ve all been pumped into the move. It just shows that you never know what's around the corner. So we've been lucky that we're not further down that journey.

118783462_3220452521365549_4643718135695287878_oA different wedding. Photo: Ben Davis

My partner Alice gave birth on July 17 to our second daughter Laurel. I couldn't go to any of the scans or anything like that, which was unfair - you're a team. It's not quite a two person job, but it is in a support sense, and you never know what's going to show up on scans and you ought to be there.

It was quite a strange time. With my first daughter Poppy we were seeing people during the pregnancy, they were commenting on the bump, and there were a number of markers - events, baby showers and so on. But in lockdown we didn't see anyone socially. It was very different in that sense and the excitement was really only shared between us.

Although I was there for the birth, upon arriving at the hospital I had to wait outside until someone decided I was allowed in. Alice was already in established labour and the baby was coming quickly, so it was hard on Alice who didn’t want to be on her own when she needed support. It all felt a bit unnecessarily cruel. 

Someone did come and fetch me though, and our baby was born an hour later. I stayed for four hours afterwards in a private side room, before she was moved to a ward for further assessments and I had to leave them.

Because she was born early and had jaundice she was in hospital for a week, and I wasn't allowed to visit or see her. That was hard on me but also harder on Alice, who was doing it on her own and the baby was feeding every 40 minutes, while the midwives were coming in to check on them, she wasn't getting any rest. Also babies change so quickly and I missed out.

I saw her once that week as I had to take a bag up and Alice briefly snuck to the door. I got to hold my daughter for 60 seconds, while wearing a mask and not in the ward, before I was told off and kicked out. I also took a pic of them through the window from the ground floor while they were up in their room. Alice was in tears and it was an emotional moment. Although I’m grateful to the hospital for their help with the birth and our daughter, the policy that excludes fathers from so much of the journey seems disproportionate to the risks and is lacking in humanity.

I appreciate it's a tricky situation and in the beginning it would be difficult for any government to manage. It was all so new, there were so many unknowns and fear was in the driving seat.

Things have changed since then. We now know so much more but I feel there’s been a lack of balance from both the government and the media on the impact of the virus and the measures intended to combat it. I’m worried that the proposed cure may be worse than the disease. 

The knock-on effects of the lockdown and the following restrictions will likely have a catastrophic impact on the economy, education, health, politics and pretty much every aspect of society for a long time to come. We will likely be suffering the results of these decisions long after the virus is no longer a serious threat. This concerns me more than the immediate risk of Covid. And not just for me because I face such a minimal personal risk, but for the country as a whole. How will we protect the NHS if there isn’t any money to pay for it?

I'm grateful for the financial help I got, but I would prefer to earn over handouts. My overall income with that is probably around 50% of what it would be, and this month has been really busy, which has been good. A lot of the 'back-to-normal' money has been school prospectuses - I've probably done ten schools in a month as they are playing catch-up from their lost term.

But I've had six months where my income has been at 20% of what I'd usually be earning, and my ongoing overheads are still there - utilities, licenses, insurance, subscriptions. However a lot of my photographer colleagues did not qualify for government help, or may have invested heavily in their businesses in previous years and so their SEISS grants would be peanuts. And it's not just photographers, lots of people are struggling and suffering.

I'd already built my business to be more resilient by having multiple revenue streams from different areas of photography, just in case of an economic crash and I also enjoy the variety. I’m glad I did. Colleagues who focus solely on weddings face much more difficulty and I really sympathise with them. The third government grant will only be at 20% and that won't be good for a lot of people.

Business is still limited for me. This is a good month but I think once the 'catch-up' is over it will go down again. If we have further restrictions here then it’ll be hard to earn much of a living again, winter tends to be a quieter time anyway and I wouldn’t expect any further government help. If the situation doesn’t improve next year then I can’t see many weddings going ahead either. It’d be a case of waiting it out, or seriously considering other career options. For the moment I intend to stick with photography. It’s all I’ve known and I love my job, it'd be sad to have to leave it behind.

IMG_20200720_163245_1Ben and his daughters