London-based freelance photographer Peter Dench spent the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic shooting now familiar scenes: empty supermarket shelves, shuttered storefronts, mask-wearing pedestrians, and fenced-off parks. “They’ve quickly become clichés,” he says of the images he was producing for clients around the world.
But around the third week of April, he started noticing something new. Red-and-white-striped caution tape was suddenly everywhere in central London—draped across park benches, wrapped around rental bicycles, festooning statuary, and forming makeshift barricades around bus drivers. Always drawn to bright primary colors, Dench started shooting these peppermint-striped cityscapes for Getty Images.
“The idea was to show London in a different way. The familiar landmarks are all there—red phone booths, the London Eye, Trafalgar Square—but now there’s this tape everywhere.”
At the time, a citywide stay-at-home order meant Londoners could leave the house only for exercise. The caution tape was meant to discourage the use of public facilities like benches or playground equipment. “Whatever you wanted to look at, and wherever you wanted to sit, there was tape,” Dench says. But he noticed that after a few days, the tape tended to either disappear or get repurposed by mischievous passersby; one jokester wrapped caution tape around the lap of a nude female sculpture. “I got the feeling the public might have been getting a little creative with the tape,” he says.
Although American cities have also used caution tape to cordon off exercise equipment and benches, London health authorities appear to have been especially zealous in their taping frenzy; many of the tableaus Dench captured resemble works of installation art. “My mom is concerned about what will happen to all that tape,” Dench says. “It doesn’t look very biodegradable.” But for Dench, the tape provided an opportunity to see familiar landmarks and streets in a new way.
“I actually did get very excited,” he says. “It’s adding something to these monuments that have been in place for hundreds of years. They’ve seen it all, but they haven’t seen this.”
Wrapping London in striped tape may seem like a rather feeble response to a pandemic that has already killed an estimated 47,000 UK residents. Dench sees it as a message the government is sending to Londoners: Take care when walking outside. “It doesn’t seem like the most robust way to prevent the Brit from enjoying a stroll along the river or through the parks,” he says. “You can still access all the parts of central London. The tape is just sort of encouraging you to stay on your feet and move along.”
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