Learn from China-based photographer Christine Keegan as she shares her thoughts and experiences on staying creative under quarantine and making even small moments special.

For the past two months, I’ve been home-quarantined due to the worldwide pandemic now known as COVID-19. My family and I live in China, and within days of hearing about the virus, everything around us began to shut down. Instantly, the walls of our home became our whole world.

For many people, including those of us in creative careers, this is now your new normal and is probably starting to create some serious challenges for you, not the least of which is how to continue creating within the confines of this new space—both mentally and physically. I’m here to share a bit of my story, and how I’m maintaining creativity and hope in this new reality.

This is a story from Christine Keegan, a photographer and writer based in Tianjin, China. You can find her work on Offset here and on Instagram.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Creating Under Confinement
Finding joy at home. Image by Christine Keegan

How My Quarantine Began

When the quarantine began in our city, I found myself surrounded by my children, in need of all the outlets that were no longer available to them. I found myself in need of those outlets too—being outside, being with people, breathing fresh air, having a moment to myself. In the absence of those things, it seemed as if the creative parts of myself were in danger of drying up.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Rebuilding Routine
Finding moments of quiet and stillness. Offset Image by Christine Keegan

We scratched our ways through those initial days, finding ways to appreciate some of the new routines while continuing to experience the confines of all the things we loved being barred and barricaded. Parks shut down, basketball courts closed, spring and summer trips were canceled. Initially, I felt that loss of motivation as I struggled to keep everyone’s spirits up.

How could I keep us moving forward day after day with our small and insular routines so that we could do more than just survive, but so that we could also continue to thrive?

Shifting My Perspective

I started to run daily on our treadmill that faced a wall, symbolic of how our whole life felt. Like little hamsters running nowhere.

But one day, I noticed the wall was covered with little black marks—a result of my boys throwing a basketball against it. It was a small sign of their own creative attempts to stay active and not lose the skills they had gained during days of free movement.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Shifting My Perspective
Spending more time with loved ones. Image by Christine Keegan

As the world and our days slowed down, I began to notice something unexpected. Even as the walls closed in, routines and limitations had their own gifts to give. I just had to open my eyes and look for them.

Look To The Stories of Others

As we faced our time of national and local confinement, I was reminded of those who are always confined and cut off from the daily pleasures we take for granted. The incarcerated, or the severely impaired, those who are house-bound, or bed-ridden. I took strength from stories of others who have walked this road before me, in far more difficult and confining circumstances. People like Corrie Ten Boom, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela, and Anne Frank.

Knowing their stories and reading or re-reading their experience helped me to think with creativity and even with appreciation about my own experience and understanding of the situation. The first step then was a metaphysical one: to look beyond myself to the stories of others for inspiration, to get ready to see things I hadn’t seen before, and to keep my head up.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Look to the Stories of Others
We’ve gone through hard times before. Offset Image by Christine Keegan

Pay Close Attention

As the weeks have passed by, I’ve been forced to notice things I normally don’t, and to appreciate them—even be thankful for them. This act of noticing happens on some level for most artists, but most of us have full lives with frantic schedules that don’t allow for much pause or contemplation. There are a host of things we don’t see or pay attention to because we have places to go and things to get done.

But suddenly, in a quarantine, everything is on pause. And you begin to notice things you didn’t have time to see before. 

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Pay Close Attention
Moments will always surprise you when you look for them. Image by Christine Keegan

Having all my kids home and trying to help them in all their different stages of schooling was hard, especially in the beginning. Relationally, all our warts came out.

But over time, I began to see how this time together was also forcing them to grow closer, to rely on each other in new ways, how they were creating bonds over things they normally would not have the opportunity (or the proximity) to. 

Finding Light (Literally)

Noticing has also taken on physical form. The way the light lands on my daughter’s face at a certain time every morning. How the view from our upstairs window looks when I stare out over my toddler’s hand outstretched, as though she is reaching for a future we can’t see. And I’ve started to capture those perspectives with my camera, even when I’m not feeling inspired.

No one likes limitations. We love our freedom. And yet, it is often when we are hemmed in and forced to do with less that our creativity—our ability to notice—gets stronger.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Finding the Light
Ordinary moments seem extraordinary. Image by Christine Keegan

Fighting the Rut: Trying New Techniques, Consistency, and Exploring Other Genres

Artists think and write a lot about creative ruts and if ever there was a time where you might experience one, a quarantine seems to be it. During these long weeks, it has been helpful for me to fall back on some of the tried and true things that can help during any rut, such as:

  1. Exploring a new technique: As a photographer I like freelensing, creative portraiture, double-exposure, shooting through glass, or other objects, creating diptychs, etc.
  2. Shooting everyday: Shooting every day no matter how I feel about the image. These are moments I want to capture.
  3. Investing in other creative genres: One day I wrote some poetry. Yesterday, watching Terrence Malick’s latest film, “A Hidden Life” set off a wave of inspiration. Cooking a new recipe, trying my hand at sourdough bread, styling my hair differently… These little things somehow keep the juices flowing and keep the sense of monotony and gloom at bay.
  4. Enjoy the moment: I don’t sit and watch the news all day. I keep up with my social media but try not to slump into a stupor watching what everyone else is doing (or not doing) right now. 
I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Fighting the Rut
Fighting the creative rut. Image by Christine Keegan

Dormancy Can Be A Good Thing

While it’s true that some of these tips work to keep our creativity flowing and maybe even producing works of interest, it’s also true that there will be days that just feel like a big fat zero.

As we enter into our now ninth week of at-home quarantine, I can say that there are times when I feel like it will never end and can start numbering all the things we have missed or long for. But I find it strangely hopeful that spring is also happening just outside my door, and I can see trees budding even now.

I'm a Photographer Quarantined in China: A Message to Artists Everywhere — Dormancy Can Be Good
Enjoy the small moments of hope. Image by Christine Keegan

Nature gives us one of the most vivid reminders of what is true for us creatively as well, that a seed lying dormant needs time buried down in that dark dirt in order to grow. Those days when you feel like nothing is happening and you are just a hamster on a wheel can possibly be doing more than you know if you have the patience to wait and see. 

A message to the artists at home

For all artists everywhere, a key part of the work is having eyes to see beyond what is right in front of you. This is the essence of creativity—seeing outside the boundaries.

Keep looking up and outward to others who have walked this road, keep your routines of creating work, look for new techniques to try or a different genre to engage in, and remember that some of the best creative work can come out of a long period of darkness.

Top image by Christina Keegan.

Find more inspiration for staying creative and working from home here: