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This photographer documented life as a young person during the pandemic

by Zoe Whitfield, CNN

(CNN) — New Year’s Eve 2020 was peculiar for many of us. As Coronavirus continued to sweep the globe, usual end-of-year reflections were replaced by a build-up of collective grief. Around the world, Covid-19 socializing restrictions put obstacles in the way of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

For German photographer Valentin Goppel, the uniqueness of the situation was underscored by his companions: Instead of his spending the night with his flatmates as he would do usually, he was instead alone with his girlfriend’s younger brother and two of his friends, making the initial images for what would become Goppel’s first photobook, “Zwischen den Jahren.”

“For weeks before, her brother had tried to persuade his parents to let him spend New Year’s Eve with his friends, which (as a young person) I found really understandable, but his parents didn’t,” the photographer recalled in an interview with CNN. “In the end, (they relented when) he agreed to spend four days (quarantining) in his room afterwards. It was a strange thing, this commitment to meeting your friends just for a few hours — then spending days alone — but to him it was worth it.”

After returning home from photographing the boys, Goppel confessed he pondered his reasons for doing so. “I was like ‘why am I doing all of this?’. I would rather have spent the time with my girlfriend!” But the evening became the starting point for a wider project about young people, lockdown and mental health.

“Zwischen den Jahren” translates as “between the years” and is a common expression in Germany for the last days of December. The title is also, however, a rich characterization of the disorientated state of limbo experienced throughout the pandemic, particularly by teens and those at university.

Encouraged by a commission from German newspaper Die Zeit, following his New Year’s Eve shoot, Goppel spent the next 18-months taking photos, with his young subjects frequently lit by the glow of a laptop screen, pictured wearing face masks, or meeting outdoors — the realities of life during the pandemic. In some instances, Goppel set up his camera and observed those around him, and at others he staged specific scenarios from the recent past.

“Oftentimes it was, ‘I want to depict this memory, I want this to be a part of the project’, so there was a conscious decision before taking the picture,” he said. “And sometimes I was just waiting for something important to happen.” The last photograph for his project was taken in summer 2022.

Goppel was living with his parents in Hanover when news of the first lockdown emerged, but by late 2020, the photographer was back sharing with flatmates, who became some of the book’s key protagonists. “The idea came out of the sense of ‘I am a part of this,’” he noted, reflecting on the book’s genesis and the shared experiences of those around him. “It then became very collaborative, working with my friends. In the end they were ‘our’ images more than only mine.”

Despite this communal sensibility, the pandemic’s impact left Goppel and his friends with an altered sense of companionship, he said. As he explains in the book’s accompanying text, before Covid 1 in 10 German teenagers showed symptoms of depression; after the first lockdown it was 1 in 4.

“I tried to get back into society, which was really hard,” the photographer remarked of the images he made towards the end. “You were back with your friends, but many of us felt disconnected from them, and very isolated still. That was a strange experience, because you could be in a group and still feel alone.”

With open borders and international travel since resumed, more recently Goppel has been making photos on a road trip across America, photographing strangers with a new purpose, largely informed by the making of “Zwischen den Jahren.”

“The Covid project set the path for what I’m doing now, and a rule that whatever I’m working on, I implement my perspective,” he said. “During Corona, I realised for the first time that whatever I, as an individual was experiencing, was important.”

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“Zwischen den Jahren” by Valentin Goppel is published by GOST Books and out now.

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