Balloons attached to streamers float in front of ornate golden walls and a complex, multicoloured stained glass window.

Looking for little pockets of light

What it’s really like to be a photographer in lockdown

Maria Ashby-Giles is a visual thinker. The big red diary that sits in front of her is full of the kind of notes and doodles that ignore the ruled lines and lay wherever they land on the page in big curly circles. When she wants to look for a date, she opens a whole year planner out in front of her, filled with crossings out, different coloured inks and whole months of events that contrast with the empty spaces that are the hallmark of everyone’s 2020 calendars.

“The first month wasn’t so bad because I had lots of editing to do and lots to catch up on, so I busied myself in the office. And then, suddenly, empty pages.” Maria has been in the photography business since graduating from art school and taking an apprenticeship with a wedding photographer who counselled her to “go where the money is”. Ever since, weddings have made up a significant amount of her work, alongside other projects such as portfolio images for casting agents in the film industry. Having had a hectic spring, she was looking forward to a paced wedding season this year, balancing work with spending plenty of time with her daughter. But the ability to plan suddenly became a luxury few could enjoy as lockdown was announced and the phone began to ring. “At the beginning lockdown was for three weeks. We were all holding our breath, hoping things would be easier.” Spring weddings were being cancelled at the last minute, rescheduled and then cancelled again. “I think I moved twelve weddings. It was very emotional, there were a lot of people on the phone in tears.” Maria remained pragmatic and took the view that it might be nice to take a short break, but a couple of months in, as the pandemic took hold in the UK and the severity became clearer, she noticed a trend on social media. “People reinvented themselves, suddenly becoming business experts and running courses, doing creative things and using the time. I felt the pressure to do something, to reinvent myself. To show that I still had worth.”

An immaculate bride and groom stand in a shabby room with the light pouring onto the bride's white dress. She stands with her back to her husband and his arms around her waist, and looks back and up into his eyes.
Sonia and Terry stand in a 'pocket of light' that Maria discovered when she explored the church.
© Maria Ashby-Giles

For a busy person, a quiet time can feel alien and, although it seems like an eternity ago, early lockdown turned social media into a vortex of thoughts, opinions, virtue signalling, super-parents and rolling news. It was during this time that everyone seemed to have an opinion on what Maria should or could be doing while her business was quiet. People were offering her advice on an industry they knew nothing about – her industry – and she was in turns upset and angry. “I felt as if they were telling me I wasn’t a photographer anymore. It felt awful.” A social media detox came from an unlikely source as she received a phone call at the beginning of May: “Do you fancy working on a farm? God, do I?!” Early on, she had put her name down for ‘Pick for Britain’, a government scheme to support local farmers as they harvest during lockdown restrictions. It turned out to be the most positive experience imaginable. “It was great exercise. I met the most amazing people; everyone was either really outdoorsy or creative, or students,” she says “And we had so much fun. It was a bit grim some days, wading through water to pick blueberries, but I was having a ball!”

The summer months of fruit picking gave Maria the chance to mentally adjust and consider that “just because I’m not out there at the moment doesn’t mean I’m not going to be out there in the future.” So, when the phone rang with a booking from a bride’s sister, it was perfect timing. The couple had planned to be married in a lavish affair in a Scottish castle, but like so many others, they were forced to postpone. “They were so upset and desperate to get married that her sister took over and said, ‘I’ll organise it, don’t worry’”. Working within the limitations of lockdown restrictions, she brought together a tiny congregation of fifteen people, (including Maria, completely unbeknownst to the bride and groom) to their local Methodist Church for a ceremony packed with meaning. “They were told not to ask any questions. So, I met them as they were walking along the canal on the way to the church and just went ‘Surprise!’ She had a slight look of shock on her face, but I just said ‘are you prepared to trust me? I’ve got some really great ideas.’

At that stage I hadn’t picked up a camera for four months.”

I felt the pressure to do something, to reinvent myself. To show that I still had worth

They trusted her. And she quickly explored the church to find that it was undergoing some renovation (“It was falling down!”) and had to take other issues into consideration, such as social distancing. “I was a bit worried that in such a vast church they’d rattle around,” she explains. “But the lights were very dark, so they had a warm glow around the altar. Everyone else was in the edges of the glow, so the rest of the church became insignificant really. You didn’t see it.” Afterwards she had half an hour with the couple before they were taken down to the crypt of the church for a post-wedding picnic. Her explorations had come across some perfect little pockets of light and she guided the newlyweds to them. “I said, ‘there are signs saying, ‘do not walk here’, but I’ve walked all over it and it seems to be safe – I’ve just got to move these pots of paint.” She laughs.

The images look like a beautiful intimate wedding. You would never know that they were taken in a tumbledown city church in the middle of a pandemic. “It was just two people, very much in love and because they had gone to the lengths to get married, while there was such madness in the world, it made it almost more of a wonderful love story. They were married with the people they love around them. And me.”

Maria is keenly aware of how important the choice of wedding photographer is to couples and remains matter of fact about why she is selected. “It is a privilege to go and take photos at a wedding because you are one of the numbers, you are an expensive part of the day. You’ve got to be liked enough that they’re happy to have you amongst their friends and family.” She believes that as she gets older, so do her clients, particularly as the subsequent ‘lockdown’ weddings she has photographed have been couples who have been together for many, many years and just decided that now is the time. One couple even eloped, with Maria quickly sending them a “really kitsch” wedding photo that they could use to surprise their friends before heading off on honeymoon. “Because there was a bit of mischief about it, it was so lovely to be a part of.”

Newlyweds stand in front of the door of the grey stone atrium of a church, surrounded by huge arched leaded windows.
© Maria Ashby-Giles
Newlyweds with their arms around each other, look into each others eyes and smile.
© Maria Ashby-Giles

As we move into an uncertain winter, she feels relief to have some green shoots for her business. The film industry is slowly finding its feet and castings are beginning again, which means demand for headshots. Local businesses and nurseries are beginning to make bookings. She describes it as “bread and butter stuff”. Anything that requires long-term planning, however, seems firmly on ice. “Most of this year’s weddings are moved to next and not all of them have dates yet because of international travel.” She doesn’t think that the wedding industry will return to its pre-pandemic state for quite some time but feels optimistic for next summer when everyone can be outside, and some restrictions can be lifted. For now, she is grateful for the work that is coming in and is directing her energy at increasing her presence in other areas. “I can’t count my chickens,” she says. “But I’m counting my blessings.”

You can find out more about Maria’s work on her website and follow her on Facebook.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard