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As uncertainty and anxiety over coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to proliferate, media organizations have tasked a handful of freelance photographers to document the outbreak. The situation is even more perilous because unlike the sub-genres of war or natural disaster photography, these photographers aren’t offered hazard pay and are self-insured for health coverage. We reached out to three photographers to get their stories.
Interviews have been lightly edited.
Can you describe your assignment, what you experienced, and the support you received from your editor?
I have covered several stories related to COVID-19 for NYT, Reuters, and WSJ. Sometimes assignments are specific, such as when I drove to New Rochelle for Reuters to document the first drive-through testing station that opened at Glen Island Park and efforts of the New York National Guard to pack lunches. Others, such as my recent assignment for the Times are more open-ended because this is a fast-moving story that doesn’t have a specific location attached. My assignment for the Times was more or less to document the feeling and mood of the city throughout the day.
I’ve worked with the editor for years, so we have a solid relationship and good amount of trust. Safety wasn’t discussed but I believe that is because they know I will take the appropriate precautions to document the story. I have several N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves I have been utilizing while covering this story. That being said, from a support perspective, masks are in short supply and cannot be reused, so having newsroom support to source these would be great. I will say that my editor at the WSJ has been really proactive, supplying replacement masks, and also updating guidelines from their security about current best practices and safety protocol.
I spent about a week in Central Florida. I photographed Florida’s retirement communities, their interactions, measures they were taking (or avoiding) against the virus, and of course, anything pertaining to the state’s Democratic primary. While I ran into some who exercised great preventative care in their public life, it was unfortunate to note that most retirees I came across still engaged in tightly knit, contact-rich activities, like pickleball, swimming, eating together (when restaurants were still open to this) and even gathering in open spaces, despite canceled organized events, without much distance to each other — at times embracing, kissing, shaking hands — some immunocompromised, some with open defiance or denial of the virus.
Many peers of mine (in their 20s or 30s) I’d run into were commingling just as flippantly: socially with few inches in between, or to “work from home” but instead doing it together in open spaces. As one person described it, “I’m getting paid to be in the pool.” It was so disconcerting to witness, in context of how quickly and easily this virus spreads, but I believe it mirrored how many across the globe approach this highly contagious, certainly dangerous virus, in downplaying or denying its spread or potential damage or destruction to the body.
Gary covered the closing night at Gotham Bar and Grill, which recently shuttered its doors after 34 years of operation.
I was going around shooting features of restaurants operating at 50% capacity, which was the rule at the time, so I was shocked when I showed up and saw that the bar was three people deep. Eventually some managers figured out who I was and invited me to go into the kitchen and whatnot, because they wanted the historical moment captured. It might’ve been the last great party in New York City for a while. That my last major exposure, nine days ago, so I’m excitedly counting down the days to two weeks.
What are your concerns for your health and safety while covering COVID-19 and how are you addressing them?
I imagine my concerns are the same as most Americans. I worry about exposing my roommates or subjects I am documenting to the virus if I am infected. I am in the age demographic that may not show symptoms and should statistically should be fine, but there is so much we don’t know yet. I worry if I get sick about the number of hospital beds available, 53,000 according to Cuomo, and the dense population. I’m doing my best to follow a protocol of keeping all my gear in one area by the door, and clorox wiping everything as soon as I get home. I am immediately showering and putting whatever clothes I wore outside into a garbage bag inside my laundry hamper. As far as we know, COVID-19 can live on surfaces for days. I am to the extent that it is possible remaining 6 feet from people and taking alternative means of transit such as scooters or bike, when I can.
Wearing a mask and gloves feels (and often is) safer, but a counterbalance to this measure is yet another worry: that we are taking supplies away from those who need them most, our healthcare workers.
What if we do get sick, as freelancers? Do the various publications we work for have a plan in place to cover our catastrophic medical expenses? Likely not, which is certainly terrifying. So I think each assignment must pair with scrutiny and open communication. I’ve felt lucky that I’ve worked with editors who have been supportive to my concerns, both health and financial, and yet, I am just a freelancer, still. No one else carries the obligation to pay my hospital bills.
Photojournalists are used to throwing themselves into situations where their health and safety could be compromised, like in warzones or hurricanes, so this is not new. Because of this, my concern is more about not spreading it if I’m an asymptomatic carrier, than it is about preventing myself from getting it, since journalists are all willfully putting ourselves out there every day. To that end, I sanitize my hands often, try not to touch anything, and keep a good distance from everyone even when I’m interviewing them. Even the whole elbow bump thing is out the window.
What are the challenges of trying to convey the pandemic through photography?
COVID-19 is a complex subject to document. Access to places like hospitals and research labs where much of the action is happening, is understandably restricted because professionals need to save lives and do their jobs. Stories related to documenting the mood of the public are difficult because the most visual element of an invisible virus are masks, gloves, or other make-shift preventative measures people are taking. Adding another layer of complexity has been the tendency of some American politicians and cable personalities to brand the virus as “foreign” or “Chinese” which the World Health Organization has strongly pushed back against because stopping this disease requires global cooperation. I am conscious that the images I make will frame how people visualize and understand this issue. I also think people are scared. I think a lot of people in New York live paycheck to paycheck and we haven’t begun to see the full impact of business closures. With no end to this in sight, it seems likely to me that photographing stories will become more and more dangerous aside from personal concerns I have about possibly getting the virus. I had someone yell in my face about being a member of the “elitist” media. Others don’t believe COVID-19 is serious, which is incredible to me.
I sought out ways daily life had changed or had remained the same, as controlled by the humans who felt one way or another. This meant closed restaurants or those that were full; people standing apart or making contact; palpable anxiety or a forced or very real nonchalance. I didn’t find it challenging to find either since like it or not, this virus is now a part of our unifying fabric of thought, across the nation and the world.
What concerns do you have as a freelancer given some of the estimates about its duration? Have you had cancellations?
Most of my commercial assignments have been cancelled. Obviously arts and culture assignments have been cancelled because those institutions are closed. Pretty much all I am working on now is covering COVID-19. Because it is impacting every sector. I am worried about emotional burnout and perhaps getting sick, or unknowingly getting those around me sick. I am trying to do my job as a journalist to help inform the public about what is happening, but on some levels it has been exhausting absorbing the emotions of subjects and reading through increasingly dire reports of how quickly this is spreading. On a personal level, this story is impacting my life, so it feels even more exhausting to objectively document something that I’m already spending most my time thinking about when I’m not working.
I recently won a grant from Leica camera alongside two other wonderful women, Debi Cornwall and Eva Woolridge, to pursue personal projects of our choice. I’ve had to of course put this project on hold, canceling my trip abroad for it. Leica had planned a portfolio of fantastic events to showcase our work within the photo community that combined work with fun, but has also had to cancel them for the near future…Which is truly a small sacrifice to make when faced with defeating a pandemic, but you could imagine these necessary changes have already affected the scope of our current and future career opportunities.
I’m terrified to think that the future few months will mean most photographers do not work, since much of what we photograph (organized events, establishments, daily life) has come to a halt, or that our only option to make money via picture creation might be to accept the kind of assignments that place us under elevated risk. If there‘ve been thin excuses from our legislative and executive leaders before (and the media organizations who assign us at a fraction of the cost of salaried workers,) there no longer exists a legitimately humane reason to prevent creating a permanent safety for the most precarious fragments of our economy and human life — gig workers, freelancers, and anybody affected by lack of guaranteed pay, paid sick leave, child care, health insurance and equal access to affordable housing and professional opportunity — everything we need to survive with health, happiness and dignity, and everything this nation once promised.
My core corporate photography business has gone from pretty good to zero overnight. Most photographers that I know have experienced that same income free fall, and it’s going to be a struggle for everyone to keep their heads above water for a few months until things start returning to normal. Editorial has always been a side thing for me, but now it’s more important than ever, not only in terms of telling the stories but also for keeping some small amount of revenue going. So, I am grateful to have that.
PhotoShelter is maintaining a list of COVID-19 resources for photographers.