Far Away, So Close: One Photographer's Portraits of a World in Lockdown

Ale Burset explains his project 'Us by Us'

Many of us all but live on video chat these days. It's a strange experience—frequently awkward, yet often poignant. It reminds us of our distance, yet it's also the thing that binds us.

Ale Burset, an Argentine photographer living in Spain, began a project recently to document this uncanny experience of connecting through video chat—by taking photographic portraits of his friends, and then friends of friends. He sets up his computer in the same spot every day for the shoots, giving the project a visual consistency. The portraits capture moments in time—laughter, shyness, playfulness, beauty. It's a document of a changed world, instant by instant.

The project is called "Us by Us." See some of the photos here:

Muse spoke with Burset more about the project. 

Where did you get the idea to do a photo series?

At the very beginning of the lockdown, I started to notice how much the way we communicate has changed. I asked myself what would be the best way to portray people during this time. I always love to travel and capture moments. I was sitting in exactly the same place where I shoot the images for my project every day. I shot the monitor to see what would happen with the texture, and I really liked the result. I realized I could invite people to be photographed in this special moment. 

I felt this could be a way of shortening the distance, that far away was synonymous with close at the moment of the shooting. It was a way to capture moments throughout the world every day. The project was born instinctively, like many other projects I have made. They are not born conceptually. I felt it. I loved it. I shared it with my wife and she liked it from the very beginning. She encouraged me to do it. And here we are. We have been sharing moments of our lives for a month.

Click thumbnails to enlarge

What are you trying to capture? Loneliness? Togetherness? A bit of both?

A moment of our lives, to share a moment. What emerges from the image and from the moment we share during the shooting. I am not interested in loneliness in this case. What I love about this project is the feeling that we are not alone.

How are you choosing your subjects?

I started with friends, then friends of my friends.

How do the sessions go? Do you chat first? Or get right to the photo?

I write to them in order to tell them about the project. Once they accept, we fix a date and time. I send them a link and we connect through the computer. Generally we chat before the shoot, about life and the present situation, about how we feel. All the shoots are different. The portrait is so important as the moment we share during the meeting. It is the moment in which the distance is shortened and when we come to be together and closer.

How do you direct them? Do you want the images to be posed or more candid?

At the beginning, the guest chooses the position of the portrait, and the place. During the shoot I can suggest a pose, but generally this is natural. I only try to avoid backlight in order to have clearer images.

You place your computer in the same place for almost ever shot. Is this to have consistency from photo to photo?

The computer is always in the same place—that is the place where the idea was born. It is the place where I sit every morning to drink mate [an Argentine infusion drink] and where I work when I am at home. It's the living room of my house. It's a good way to share my favorite place of my house. It also gives the project a point of unity for the different stories, like a thread that runs through the entire project. 

Is there a method to the time of day you shoot?

I like the different times of day in order to have different lighting in every image. Each one is unique. Early in the morning I can meet people in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, for example. And later on in Spain, where I live. And at night with people living in Peru, the U.S., Canada, Panama, Colombia, Buenos Aires. Some people can do the shoot at certain times, and others not. I like seeing how the images have evolved throughout this time. Light changes all the time and I can play with the windows and the lamps.

You plan to put these into a book? How many photos will you take altogether?

Yes, the project will end in a book. A limited edition with no commercial end. My idea is to register the moment we are living in, and I would like to donate the images to a museum as a registry of the lockdown. The quantity of images will depend on how long this will last. But I believe that I will end with 120 or 200 images.

What has this project revealed to you so far about our current situation? What emotions are you feeling as you do this project?

Each story and each moment has different emotions. Each image has a story behind it, small or huge, but always a story. What I especially love about this project is that it shows me we are close to other people, much more closer than we believe. That every moment that we share, though far away, is precious and unique, a gift of life. I hope we never forget we have gone through when this situation ends and we return to normality.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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