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Girls of Isolation is a photo project curated by poet & novelist, Olivia Gatwood.
In April 2020, I was living alone in a small town during a global pandemic.
I hadn't touched another person in six weeks. In the depths of my solitude, I watched Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, in which a painter and her subject mutually fall in love through the act of simply witnessing one another. What struck me, was not just that I hadn’t touched anyone in over a month, but that, on a very basic level, I couldn’t be witnessed by anyone either. What I once relied on to feel loved, was now both gone and impossible. It became one more thing I had to do myself. 
So, I dragged a stool into the center of my kitchen and set my phone camera to countdown across from me. In front of my many houseplants, shoved into the only corner of my kitchen that receives sufficient light, I looked into the lens.  I didn’t pose or contort my body in any particular way. I didn’t fix my hair or put on makeup. I didn’t even put on my clothes. I wanted to witness myself right then. In the room where I spend ninety-five percent of my days, wearing almost nothing to prevent cross-contamination, being looked at by my only access to the external world, the photo being captured with my own finger.


If this were one hundred years earlier, say, during the 1919 Spanish plague, the story would end here. Alone, in my house, with no line to the outside world. But on the internet, at any given point, a person can be witnessed by thousands of people in the event they’re worried that they no longer exist. I made the photo black and white, because it seemed to echo the melancholic state in which I was consistently living, and posted it with the caption, “Self Portrait of a Lady in Quarantine.” Shortly thereafter a girl, slightly younger than me, but also tattooed and in her black bra, posted her own, with the same caption and a nod to my original photo. After that, there was another girl. This one, sitting on her bed, resting her cheek in her palm. Then another, sitting on her kitchen counter, her legs crossed over one another. None of them were smiling. Neither was I. It was hard to back then.


I was moved by the idea that even one girl felt compelled to take her own portrait. Nevertheless, half a dozen by the end of the day. And what resonated with me most, was how similar they all were. Not in the tangible details of our clothing or surroundings, but in our faces. How we held the same expression that was some combination of confusion and sadness and fear and silence. It wasn’t an urgent face. It was the face of someone who has settled into a mostly quiet, mostly alone life, while the outside world bloomed into a state of panic over a shortage of ICU beds and morgue space. We all had the same face, because we were all reading the same news. Despite our vastly different conditions, somehow, we had one thing in common.


After seeing the pattern, I thought to make a small collage of a few of these self-portraits, so I made a call for girls to send me their portraits. No prompt otherwise. The few requirements being that it is a self-portrait and greyscale. I imagined receiving a couple dozen and tiling them together, then posting it as a one-time display. But as the day went on, the photos kept coming. Girls from all over the world in their monochromatic spaces, staring into the screen. Within the next few hours, I had several hundred. And by the next morning, I had to make a separate email account and submission guidelines. It was clear that the photos would not all fit in one collage and all of them were stunning, so much so, that I could not bear to let a single one go. Even the idea of a collage with more than ten photos felt wrong—the pictures deserved to be looked at up close. So I created a new Instagram page—Girls of Isolation—where I would curate the portraits into collages of six or less, captioned only with the date.


As I write this, I have received upwards of three-thousand submissions from dozens of countries and every single continent. The most common photo I receive is some rendition of the earlier ones—head on with a firm stare, the body in a seated position in the center of a bedroom. But the girls have also gotten creative with how they take them—adorning their faces with stick on gemstones or using a fisheye lens to capture the bubble of their homes. Some girls are mid-laugh but most are not. Most carry the expression that I had that first day, one that has become a quintessential characteristic of the portraits. These remain some of my favorites.

Captioning the photos with the date is not just a marker of that day, it’s a ticker of how many days it has been since the beginning of mandatory quarantine. But the evolution of the photos are a marker of time too. The expression on a girl’s face who has been in isolation for two days, is vastly different than one who has been in isolation for four weeks. Now, I receive photos of girls mid-scream, or laying upside down in a chair, stir-crazy, their feet on the headrest. I’ve received photos of girls in hospital beds in the COVID-19 Unit. And as the pandemic goes on, I imagine I will receive more. I’ve wondered if those girls are okay. 


Along with their photos, the girls will usually write a small note thanking me for the project or telling me how long they’ve been isolating and where. Something I hear frequently is how, whether or not their photo gets posted, the exercise itself was valuable. I haven’t really looked at myself, because I’ve had no reason to get ready, one girl wrote. I’ve never taken a photo where the goal wasn’t to look pretty, another said. Another comment that comes up frequently, This is my favorite photo of myself I’ve ever seen.


So often, when we take a photo of ourselves, the goal is to capture the most beautiful version of our faces. We turn to our good side, push out or lips, tilt our heads down. But the prompt of Girls of Isolation challenges a person to showcase a feeling. It is a prompt that doesn’t ask how you want to be seen but instead, asks you to capture what is inevitably, inarguably, impossibly there. I hope you enjoy.

- Olivia Gatwood
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