Capturing stasis and uncertainty during the Covid pandemic

Capturing stasis and uncertainty during the Covid pandemic
Four years since countries across the world locked down, photographer Valentin Goppel revisits the experience of a suspended youth in new photobook ‘Between the Years’.

On the final night of 2020, Valentin Goppel was standing in a field, in the Lower Saxony countryside outside of Hanover. Just over a year before, aged 19, he had moved to the city from a small town in Bavaria to begin his photography studies. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit it turned the world – and the trajectories for millions of young people around the world – upside down. Since the announcement of lockdown in Germany, he had been living with his new flatmates and had grown “closer than would have been healthy” with them.

On that New Year’s Eve, he decided to break out of strict lockdown, meeting with a few friends, braving the cold weather with thick winter coats. To bring in the new year, the boys lit a small firecracker and watched it spit and burn on the ground, and Goppel took out his camera and snapped a photograph of them.

“Everybody had the need to [see their friends], it’s something that I felt was very necessary,” he recalls. “Feeling the need to be outside and meet people [isn’t usually] a criminal thing, but in that moment suddenly it was. And then everybody was confronted with the assumption that it was teenagers meeting outside in secret but I think most of us were really quite strict with ourselves and stayed at home not meeting others, while still confronted to be outside.”

That picture he took that night was the first in what would become his series Zwischen Den Jahren, which has now been published as a photobook. Taken as the world gradually began to find its feet again and people relearned how to be around each other and – the monograph’s pictures capture a generation of young German people, and their confusing coming-of-age during the pandemic.

The project’s title, which translates to ‘Between the Years’, is a reference to that specific time of year, but also the undefined structures of adolescence. “Between the Years is really corny, but in Germany it’s a saying that describes the last days of the year, between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Goppel explains. “It’s a period that everyone understands you don’t respond to emails, and it’s something ambivalent – it’s not the first year and not the second year, it’s in between and that felt right because that’s also the feeling of growing up.

“You’re not a kid anymore but you’re not an adult yet, you don’t really know what you are yet and you are trying to find it out,” he continues. “And of course, what it was like during COVID could be summarised in that expression because it felt like this foggy in between – not the year before COVID and not the year after. Just waiting for something to pass.”

From a couple spooning in bed while staring into a laptop screen, to small groups of friends hanging out in the outdoors, along with tender moments with family – the pictures capture a host of scenarios that many young people will instantly relate to from the pandemic years. But lurking in each shot is the uncertainty and limbo of the cycles of lockdown, and the unending stasis during a time of their lives many would otherwise spend partying, making friends, and falling in love.

“I think that feeling of not being in control about whatever you want to do, or your impulses is very contrary to the first years of being adolescent,” he says. “Those years are the first time in your life you can make choices for yourself and do the things you really want to do – choosing the right university and the right thing to study for example, it might be to travel the Earth – they’re the base things you can do to feel free and not being controlled by your parents or school or somebody else. Really being an adult and knowing what you want and then doing it – COVID didn’t allow that, and I think that still has a big effect on people.”

While the pictures focus on those around him, the project was also a deeply personal journey that saw the coming-of-age of Goppel as an artist and photographer. Having planned to travel to Italy for an internship working under Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin when lockdown hit, Goppel originally had designs on working as a traditional photojournalist. But as a young person experiencing the pandemic first hand, he realised he could tell his story, and indeed the stories of his contemporaries, more expressively through creating scenes and expressing his feelings through them.

“I’m always struggling with my position – whether I’m a journalist or an artist,” he explains. “What I like about my kind of photography, combining observing with staging is that I’m not distant – I’m part of it and I’m talking with [my sitters]. They give into their impulses and I give into my impulses and then it becomes something on its own bigger than the picture itself – it becomes something shared.”

Zwischen den Jahren by Valentin Goppel is published by GOST Books

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