Enda Burke spent lockdown with his parents in Galway City on the west coast of Ireland. As a street photographer, with street life on hold, he decided to focus on the people closest to hand. The result is an award-winning series, Homebound With My Parents, which turns lockdown into theatre. His luminously exuberant colourscape – candyfloss pink, sunflower yellow and turquoise – offers “an antidote to the gloom of Covid”. It’s a bid for “vibrancy, humour, a form of escapism”. To pull this bright new world off, Burke turned the family home upside down and meticulously constructed each set himself. He ordered his retro items online, put up wallpaper and drilled his parents into their new lockdown roles.
When I cross-question him about how they reacted to this hijacking, the 33-year-old reports that his parents are “very easygoing”, and says they had many laughs together. “I said to them, ‘You’re being actors – this is acting and people really love that.’” In an introduction to his series, he reveals a fascination with the “monotony associated with family life during the pandemic”, but life in Galway City during the creation of these photographs seems to have been anything but monotonous.
The images are wittily deadpan: Tesco Value Dad might have been depressing were it not comprehensively redeemed by oddball juxtapositions. Christ preaches overhead as Dad watches a travel programme about Miami on telly. Tinsel loops round a table and an ornamental pyramid of uncooked brussels sprouts is close at hand. It’s lockdown Christmas – with a tropical touch.
In Mam Lifting Weights in Lockdown Gym, the Virgin Mary appears stationed in front of a pink curtain. Enjoying a cigarette, Mam looks more likely to lift a can of beer to her lips than raise the weight in her lap any higher. Burke had been “reading about home exercise during lockdown and knew it was sky-rocketing”. He confirms that his mother has never been to the gym in her life. His father worked for the city council before retirement. Sy ma, who is artistic and loves interior design, was always a homemaker. Dad Ironing Some Socks is symbolic of futile lockdown activity (Burke included a football sock from his local team: Mervue United). Above him is a picture of Pope John Paul II – for sentimental reasons: “My parents married the day Pope John Paul came to Galway, in September 1979 – his visit was a huge deal.”
As kind, Burke felt “mesmerised” by religious imagery – his house, “like most Irish households”, had its fair share of it. “I remember seeing these images and thinking: who are these people? They’re beautiful in a strange way.” He recalls Saint Patrick on a clifftop with snakes, a “cruel” painting. His own use of religious imagery is not evangelical but “neutral”. When I say his religious iconography appears pointedly dissociated from the domestic scenes he has dreamed up, he sounds surprised. I suggest his icons are leading parallel lives. He does not disagree, but comments that they are also important because: “People get solace from them.”
We talk about lockdown hair – crazy Covid haircuts. He confesses: “My mam gave me quite a few, they were pretty good.” Dad not only gets a haircut from Mam, he gets a perm. Dad Under Hairdryer Reading a Newspaper evolved after Burke sourced a 1950s hairdryer from the Irish equivalent of Craigslist. In the ensuing barber’s shop image, an eastern European footballer from the 80s is the icon of choice. With every picture, Burke explains, he would “interact with a room, it would become a collaboration”.
He plans to make a book out of Homebound With My Parents , and on the back of his success aims to experiment with a different approach to photography. He wants to do more theatrical and narrative-based pieces. Lockdown has revealed a new way of working in which the camera has become secondary – “more like a tool” – because so much else has been going on: “I’d be building a set and asking myself: what’s next? And then I’d remember: OK, I’d better get my camera…”