Photojournalists work on the front lines of any unfolding story, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, the front lines are on lockdown.
Since the first cases appeared in Wuhan, China in December, the coronavirus has quickly become "the defining global health crisis of our time," according to the World Health Organization. More than 316,000 people in at least 157 countries have fallen ill and been quarantined in highly restricted government facilities, hospitals, and even cruise ships. Some 13,000 have died. As governments fight to squash the bug, national borders have closed, schools and businesses have shuttered, and people everywhere are hunkering down.
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It poses a special challenge to photographers, who must document a crisis defined by social distancing—the face mask being its most accessible symbol. “It’s kind of like the drought four or five years ago: Everyone’s go-to picture was of some dry dirt that was cracked and looked crazy,” says Getty photographer Justin Sullivan. “There aren’t many ways to illustrate this—it’s not like there are coronavirus balls bouncing around.”
And yet photojournalists around the world are pushing beyond the mask to document life amid Covid-19—while trying to stay safe and sane themselves.
Beijing-based photographer Kevin Frayer can’t remember a time that his life was so complicated or difficult, “and that speaks to the intensity of the story,” he says.
After ordering an aggressive lockdown on Wuhan on January 23, the Chinese government moved to protect the capital, restricting residents’ movement and requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering from outside. Since then, Frayer and his partner—also a journalist—have experienced more than 30 days of separation. And since schools are closed, he spends hours each day homeschooling his 6-year-old son. “His health and welfare obviously come first,” he says. “If we can’t find the compassion and empathy for our own family, then how can we expect to have it in our work?”
He takes pictures when he can, though restrictions make it tough. Hospitals are off-limits, apartments and offices difficult to enter, and people afraid to mix with outsiders—all which minimize what he can see. Though Frayer wears a particle-filtering mask and gloves, and stands further away from his subjects than usual, people still sometimes gesture to him to back up. “It’s a struggle for me, since people are what drives my interest in taking pictures,” he adds. “I don’t want to force myself on them or make them uncomfortable.”
Despite these obstacles, Frayer has worked to create a moving record of life in Beijing as people deal with the virus, from residents just trying to get through the crisis to the brave volunteers with the humanitarian organization Blue Sky Rescue, who are donning protective suits and disinfection equipment to tackle it head on.
“The common theme in most of the images will always be the mask,” he says. “So I try to imagine the frame without it if at all possible and to include elements that give a sense of place or ambiance.”
Four thousand miles away in Italy, Reuters photographer Yara Nardi has made a habit of never leaving home without her FFP3 mask, gloves, and antiseptic wipes for swabbing down her camera. She was plunged into the coronavirus story following the country’s January 23 announcement of its first confirmed illness. Cases have since mushroomed to over 43,000, and the death count, at over 4,800, surpasses China’s. Once-bustling piazzas and chattering trattorias have fallen into eerie, stunned silence.
“My work is often filled with solitary moments, but telling the story of coronavirus as I am now, it’s like this solitude has expanded to the whole world,” Nardi says.
For Nardi, it’s important to directly document the desertion of Italy’s “great empty spaces,” from St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to the Duomo Cathedral in Milan. But she’s also worked to capture incredible moments of solidarity and connection, as when residents of Rome took to their windows to participate in a musical flash mob. “Leaving the classic manner of recounting a story isn’t easy,” Nardi says. “The virus is invisible, but in reality, it has many faces.”
Humanizing a crisis so big and abstract is difficult—but perhaps even more so at the Kirkland Life Center near Seattle, where Reuters photographer David Ryder is based.
The nursing home is ground zero of one of the largest outbreaks of Covid-19 in the US, and 35 of its residents have died. Photographers aren’t allowed to step foot on the property. “That makes it difficult to create a picture that feels human and intimate and moving,” Ryder says.
When covering it, Ryder stands as close to the parking lot as he can to document activity outside the building, though his images sometimes also capture patients inside. He tries to be sensitive and respectful while telling a story of great historical importance.
“There are ethical limits to what I can photograph,” he notes. “I will occasionally make a picture I feel is acceptable, with someone visible inside their room, after which I check in with the family members.”
His subjects reflect Ryder’s own fears about the health of the older people in his life. Amid that anxiety—and the many others Covid-19 induces—“sticking with the work gives me purpose,” he says.
In San Francisco, Justin Sullivan found a different way to close the distance between himself and the story. He’s covered the crisis since late February, when the virus began spreading in the Bay Area, but “you can only photograph so many people wearing masks or empty shelves,” he says.
The arrival of the Grand Princess in San Francisco Bay waters earlier this month promised more action. But when the ocean liner finally docked in the Port of Oakland on March 9—five days after first being denied entry to the port of San Francisco because of a coronavirus outbreak on board—he found himself stuck shooting in a designated media area a couple thousand feet away.
So Sullivan deployed his Mavic 2P Pro drone—and flew it just 250 feet above the ship as passengers disembarked, wearier than when they first boarded it. One of those images made it to the front page of The New York Times.
“To be at the epicenter is important to me,” Sulliivan says. “It’s important to the work that I do to be on the front line.”