Photographic Encounters with Surgical Masks

As I write in the midst of coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic there have been over 800,000 cases worldwide resulting in a death toll exceeding 40,000. The UK has officially been in lockdown for over a week; the government advice is to stay home. The only exceptions are going out for daily exercise and shopping for food and medicine. Whilst out in public, protective mask wearing is compulsory in some countries. This is not the case in the UK, where walking barefaced is acceptable, though increasingly less common. There is no unified international rule on mask wearing, though I have read that in some countries anyone seen without a mask is viewed as a pariah.

I decided to look through my personal photograph catalogues for images of masks. Over the years I’ve photographed numerous of images of masks; including Purim, Halloween and carnival masks. But I’ve decided to narrow it down to images of surgical masks.

The earliest photo I found in my collection was one from shortly before I was born – it was a Purim fancy dress party in London in 1957 that took place in the Persian Jewish community, probably in Stamford Hill. My mum is in the one-shouldered Grecian robe and my father dons a fake beard and Bukhara ikat print gown (which I still have). On the far right one of the party goers is dressed as a masked surgeon:

The idea of wearing a mask as a preventative device against disease is not a new one. Like our present day masks, centuries ago Venetian doctors wore special masks to protect themselves from plague.The dottore della peste wore a long beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs. The outfit has since become a carnival staple, along with numerous masked characters that became popularised through the theatrical tradition of the Commedia Dell’ Arte, which was performed in Italy between the 16th and 18th centuries. This year’s February carnival was cancelled due to coronavirus taking hold in Northern Italy at that very time. The photo below was taken in Venice and the mannequin is dressed in a 16th Century plague doctor outfit:

Carnival masqueraders walk along the Venetian Zattere, February 2017. On the far left the plague doctor or dottore della peste:

Nowadays you can find plague doctor outfits online, including customised variations such as Steampunk versions.

In Japan the social convention of wearing surgical masks precedes the Covid-19 pandemic; I’ve read that wearing disposable masks became commonplace in 2003 when they became widely available for hay fever sufferers.. The Japanese tradition of wearing of surgical masks works both ways, as a mark of respect and consideration to others to avoid spreading germs if one has a cold and also a preventative measure to avoid getting sick.

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2006 and I remember being struck by the sight of these masks as being unusual, for me. These photos were taken in Tokyo, in the first a businessman queues for lunch:

A masked man at a Hanami cherry blossom viewing:

Next a couple of images from my trip in November 2015. Below, a woman walking in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park:

Japanese schoolchildren, several of whom wear surgical masks, sketching outdoors in Kyoto:

In London, surgical masks have become a relatively ubiquitous sight. They vary in style, some sturdy and elaborate and others flimsy and disposable. The next two images were taken earlier in March before the lockdown:

My local pharmacies only have thin disposable masks, sold loose and unsealed. To me there doesn’t seem much point in wearing something that isn’t sterile in the first place.

The picture below was taken earlier this week in Parliament Hill Fields. Like with disposable gloves; I have been spotting these carelessly discarded items more regularly. The dropped mask is a both an objet trouvé, and a symbolic sign of the times.

Despite the surgical mask becoming increasingly commonplace in London it can still strike me as being a bit surreal. Here’s a picture I took during the London lockdown a couple of days ago, of a masked reclining woman, dressed all in black, in the midst of her fitness routine on Hampstead Heath:


Also published on Medium.

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