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The rollout: 4. The volunteers

Sumit Rahman and, inset, Fran Monks (Photography by Fran Monks)

This is the fourth part of a four-part series. See also our profiles of the district nurse bringing hope to vulnerable patients,  the people who turned Salisbury Cathedral into a mass vaccine centre and the researcher combating vaccine disinformation

Sumit Rahman and Fran Monks
Volunteer and documentary photographer

England’s vaccination programme could not have happened without tens of thousands of people volunteering in clinical trials. At the start of 2021, at the height of the second wave of Covid-19, Sumit Rahman (above) joined their number. He knows that his trial is about the impact of taking two doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which in May was approved in the UK as a single-dose vaccine, but he doesn’t know whether he received a placebo or the real thing.

Over the course of the two-year trial Rahman will be closely monitored. “One night I had a pretty bad bout of food poisoning from a Chinese takeaway,” he says. “I have an app on my phone that I log symptoms on and first thing the next morning they called me and sent me to St Thomas’s Hospital, which is running the trial, for a full check-up. You receive really good care when you’re part of a trial.”

A statistician at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Rahman says that he was motivated to volunteer because “it was pretty obvious that vaccines provided the most plausible way out of the pandemic and for the vaccine trials to be as effective as possible they needed a good variety of people involved”. The statistics showed that British Asians such as himself were disproportionately affected by the virus, and since Covid-19 was more likely to be serious in older people he also encouraged his parents to sign up as volunteers.

It was pretty obvious that vaccines provided the most plausible way out of the pandemic”

Rahman also took part in the Imperial College REACT survey monitoring community transmission of Covid-19 and the Office of National Statistics infection survey to measure national infection levels. “As a statistician of course I think data is very important,” he says. “As well as analysing data I wanted to make sure that I added to it.”

These weren’t the only experiments Rahman participated in. “I’d had this idea in my head for years to photograph people via Skype,” says photographer Fran Monks, who recruited Rahman along with vaccine trial volunteers from around the world for a series of Zoom portraits. “I wanted to speak to people who felt inspired by the pandemic to step forward.”

Composing a shot when you’re not in the same room – and, in some cases, on the same continent – as the subject poses a challenge. “It becomes very collaborative,” Monks says. “I ask people to show me around their space with their laptop so I can look at the lighting and think about where to place their computer, which is effectively asking them to place my camera. When we’re ready I photograph my screen. I like that my computer has this black border when I photograph it so it looks a bit like a darkroom print negative.”

The portraits are grainy, and the lighting is far from perfect, but that’s how they’re intended to appear – a snapshot of an extraordinary period in our lifetimes when we were separated from each other and stuck at home, spending too much time staring into a computer screen. It fits into a broader project that Monks has been working on since 2003 called ‘How to Make a Difference’, in which she shoots ordinary people who are doing something special to make the world a better place.

I like to celebrate the under-celebrated”

Sumit Rahman is one of those ordinary people, making a small sacrifice to help in the effort to end the pandemic. “I like to celebrate the under-celebrated,” says Monks. “We are celebrating the scientists, and rightly so. But so many people stepped forward in huge numbers to volunteer in the Covid-19 vaccine trials, and I really wanted to tell their stories.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #42 of Delayed Gratification

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