Hold Still: capturing the spirit of a nation under lockdown

Presented by the Duchess of Cambridge and the National Portrait Gallery, the Hold Still project invited people from across the UK to submit photographs to create a collective portrait of Britain during the coronavirus 

Outdoor Space. Portrait by Val Azisi, Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire
Outdoor Space. Portrait by Val Azisi, Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire
(Image credit: Val Azisi)

Launched in May, Hold Still invited participants to submit photographs under three themes: ‘Helpers and Heroes’, ‘Your New Normal’ and ‘Acts of Kindness’ over six weeks between May and June. The project sought to capture an intimate record of this exceptional period of history through a broad range of experiences. From virtual birthday celebrations to community clapping for NHS workers, images recorded the hope and devastation, humour and resilience, community and isolation present during the pandemic.

The open call resulted in 31,598 submissions sent from across the UK, from Oban in Argyll, Scotland to Delabole in Cornwall from entrants ranging in age from four to 75 years old.

The judging panel, which comprised The Duchess of Cambridge, National Portrait Gallery director Nicholas Cullinan, author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, Chief Nursing Officer for England Ruth May, and photographer Maryam Wahid, had the unenviable task of whittling the selection down to 100 final photographs. Images were assessed on the emotions and experiences they conveyed rather than on their photographic merit or technical expertise.

Picture called Forever Holding Hands

Forever Holding Hands. Portrait by Hayley Evans, Worthing, West Sussex

(Image credit: Hayley Evans)

‘I’ve been so overwhelmed by the public’s response to Hold Still; the quality of the images has been extraordinary, and the poignancy and the stories behind the images have been equally as moving as well,’ the Duchess of Cambridge said.

‘We have been astounded by the huge number of incredible photographs that have been submitted to the Hold Still project, Cullinan said in a statement of the selection process. ‘We hope that through this project we really will capture a portrait of our nation, reflecting our collective and individual experiences during these unprecedented times.’

Picture of 2 men in block of flats called Lockdown Life

Lockdown Life - Paul & Simon. Portrait by Rebecca Douglas, Margate, Kent

(Image credit: Rebecca Douglas)

Gimba - The Ward Host. Portrait by Hassan Akkad, London

Gimba - The Ward Host. Portrait by Hassan Akkad, London

(Image credit: Hassan Akkad)

Picture of family cuddle

Long-awaited Cuddle. Portrait by Lesley Garven, Auchinleck, East Ayrshire

(Image credit: Lesley Garven)

Young girl in nurses outfit

Thank You. Portrait by Wendy Huson, Liverpool, Merseyside

(Image credit: Wendy Huson)

Black Lives Matter black and white image

Akuac. Portrait by Anastasia Orlando, London

(Image credit: Anastasia Orlando)

Sister Attending Online Ballet Class

Sister Attending Online Ballet Class. Portrait by Vedant (Aged 12 Years), London

(Image credit: Vedant)

Young child kisses through glass

Glass Kisses. Portrait by Steph James, Cowfold, West Sussex

(Image credit: Steph James)

Baby first kiss through plastic sheet

The First Kiss. Portrait by Ali Harris and Leigh Harris, Lincoln

(Image credit: Ali Harris, Leigh Harris)

The ’Hold Still’ digital exhibition is available to view online at npg.org.uk

Harriet Lloyd-Smith was the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.