Photojournalists share experience from the frontlines of the pandemic

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by Dale Willman, International Journalists’ Network

Comparing the pandemic to war, as some stories have been doing over the past month, is fraught for many reasons — among them the skewed framing it may convey. President Trump has called himself a wartime president, less because he’s at battle with a distant enemy, more because leaders generally receive a bump in support from citizens during a crisis, and that’s something he could use right now. And Trump’s not alone — Andrew Cuomo, a democrat and the governor of New York, often refers to health care workers as “troops,” an aggrandizement that likely helps any future presidential aspirations he may have.

News accounts refer to “this historic battle,” the “war on the coronavirus,” and in at least one case an opinion piece published by Al Jazeera used the headline, “For the West, War Comes Home.”

The use of war metaphors in regard to health issues has been around for generations, as Susan Sontag wrote in The New York Review of Books back in 1978. This language can have what she calls “a warping effect,” demanding that people rally around to defeat the enemy, while experts talk “like battle-weary officers mired down in an interminable colonial war.” Sontag was talking about efforts to end cancer, but the parallels to the pandemic are clear.

The problem is, metaphors can narrow how we view the problem, in this case the pandemic, and it can increase partisan divides at a time when people most need to come together. Perhaps journalists should work harder to find a more expansive way of discussing the nuances and complexity of what we are facing right now.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a recent webinar in which I spoke with a number of well-known photographers about covering the pandemic, and it was too easy to compare what they do to the work of war photographers. But there is at least one major difference: In war, you don’t bring the enemy home with you. While covering a pandemic you can — and it can kill indiscriminately. We discussed this and more in the webinar, hosted by the Resilience Media Project, which is part of the Earth Institute Initiative on Communication and Sustainability.

So the virus has challenged reporters covering this story to find new ways to do their work while staying safe. In radio, when reporters now go into the field they are equipped with long poles to extend their microphone to an interviewee standing an accepted distance away. On the broadcast network newscasts, conducting a live interview using Skype or some other online video platform from the anchor desk has become the norm. But for photographers, whether still or video, it’s much more difficult to do their work from a distance. Photography often requires a connection between the one with the camera and their subject. A personal connection that needs closeness and time. So right now, it is generally the photographer who is most at risk simply for doing their job.

But why are they out there, on the streets, risking exposure to bring us photos? Bryan Woolston is a photographer for Reuters Pictures, The Associated Press and Getty Images and a member of the National Press Photographers Association. “It’s really a way to cause change and cause action to happen on behalf of these people that are affected in one way or another by the story. And to have people form opinions to make their mind up about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s real and what’s not. And the only way for us to do that is to tell the stories.”

For Newsha Tavakolian, a photographer with Magnum Photos, covering the pandemic in her native Iran has been important. But it has also presented challenges, particularly because of her health. “I have really weak lungs, and I have asthma. So I have to be really careful [to] not get the virus.” It was also difficult early in the pandemic to take photos in Iran, so being on the street was all but impossible. But Newsha says it was important for her to tell the story of how the pandemic was affecting her country — for herself, and others. “I decided to do a personal essay on the self-isolation because I thought, maybe later, many other countries will go through what we are.” She hoped her photos could guide those other countries as they began to fight the coronavirus. That essay was featured by National Geographic.

The key, of course, is to be safe, no matter the type of work you are doing. For Newsha, that meant limiting her exposure because of her health. Alex Majoli, also a photographer with Magnum Photos, is in Italy where he has covered the pandemic there for Vanity Fair. He says, with little hyperbole, that one key for him is using alcohol sanitizer on everything and throwing a lot away — things like shirts and visors — once they are used. “We sanitize ourselves every ten minutes for no reason,” he says. “Even when I pay the highway toll, I sanitize my hands. My hands have almost corroded.”

Not all journalists are out taking pandemic photos. In fact, many, if not most, are staying at home. Thomas Dworzak is a Magnum photographer in Paris. He says he did initially hit the streets, but it quickly made him uncomfortable. “(Very) early I somehow felt that when I was out there, it was almost like…for my egotism. It was amazing to be in the streets. It was empty. I was biking around. I was taking kind of weird pictures of people with masks. But I felt it doesn’t really do anything and it doesn’t add anything. And so, I thought I should turn it all around, and I decided to stay at home.”

Even while at home, though, he has kept taking photos. “I decided that I would like to try to photograph this entire other world that has come up, which is like [what] we’re doing right now.” Thomas is documenting how the pandemic has changed the way we communicate. And he’s using that communication — video chats through programs such as Zoom and Skype — to document places where people cannot go. “It’s about people who are living in confinement or people who are in quarantine. I’m now photographing in a house for the elderly where the staff has been quarantined with the residents for about four weeks now. So there is no way, I mean, even if I drive up there, they’re not going to let me in because I put them in danger.” But by visiting them by video, he is documenting one effect of the pandemic that no one else is seeing.

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