State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Covering the Pandemic: Photographers on the Frontlines

person in mask walking near fruit stand
Photographers document how communities, like this one in the Upper West Wide of New York, are changing because of the pandemic. Photo: Dale Willman

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.

Enri Canaj did make it into a hospital in Greece, where he lives, early on in the pandemic. “This was the most difficult time that I had,” he says, because of the suffering there. He says photographing right now is difficult, in part because he tries to photograph what is visible. “Most of the time in Athens you can see people waiting in line at the supermarket, or in the post office, or walking with dogs.” But not now. “Many times, the streets are mostly empty.”

Being on the streets can not only present physical health challenges for photographers. Working under such conditions, and with such a subject as difficult to portray as a pandemic, can be stressful. And long-term stress can lead to trauma. Judith Matloff is the author of the book, How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need, and works with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. Judith says exposure to extremely upsetting circumstances can push your body into overdrive.We’re all just experiencing unusual stress. And that can come from the threat to our lives. Seeing people around us sick, just the constant fear of growing sick and the self-isolation and the disruption to ordinary lives, as well as anxiety about earning money. And so I would rather describe it less as trauma and more stress.”

Judith says the biggest contributor to building resilience in times of stress is having social networks and social contact. “So, anything you can do to check up on colleagues, just kind of check in, maybe develop a very, very intimate buddy system. I have two people that I check in with, about seven times a day. And we keep each other going. We send each other jokes. We’re constantly checking.”

One of those friends, she says, is currently in isolation from COVID-19. She says they are now her support system as they check up on her. “Have you drunk your fluids? We send her funny messages. We make sure we have contact with her on a daily basis.”

Whether you’re a photo journalist or not, our webcast offers a moment of community to help you through the isolation, and great tips on how to reduce the stress we are all feeling. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.


Links from Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos is collaborating with National Geographic to look at the more personal side of the coronavirus as it is affecting photographers around the world. The first installments can be found here: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3

Here’s a list of general guidelines for magazines as they assign photographers to cover the pandemic, compiled by content editors at Magnum Photos.

Find Magnum’s collection of COVID-19 photos here.

A pandemic photo essay in Time Magazine.


For Photographers Covering the Pandemic

Resources for photographers from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).

A good resource list from The Society of Environmental Journalists

Resources for visual journalists covering COVID-19, including funding and grants

Advice from a physician provided by Catchlight

The Juntos Photo Coop from Arizona published an open letter about inequitable working conditions for photographers

What it’s like to cover the pandemic from an Ohio photojournalist whose photo went viral

One of the first deaths of a photographer from COVID — Anthony Causi of the New York Post.

COVID-19 Guide from The Everyday Projects (all photojournalists should know about the Everyday Projects and the work they do)

Photojournalists on the front lines of documenting coronavirus – a video from The New Yorker 

A New York Times photo essay on EMTs and coronavirus

How photographers at the San Francisco Chronicle are covering coronavirus

How to Pack a Go Bag

While ‘go bags’ are not specific to trauma, having a go bag while covering any crisis story is important, even a pandemic. A go bag contains everything you need when you must leave quickly. This list offers a starting point for developing your own go bag. Not included is the work equipment you might need — camera, recorder, pads, pens.


Dealing with Trauma/Stress

When we think of trauma, our minds generally go first to those who have been at war. Stories about PTSD focus mainly on military veterans, or even journalists, who have seen combat. But trauma can also occur close to home. Journalists who cover natural disasters, crime, sexual assault and now even pandemics can also find themselves dealing with trauma.

There are many resources available for journalists who are dealing with trauma. However, most are aimed at those who have been to war. While the COVID-19 situation is different, much of the advice remains the same.

It’s okay to admit you might be stressed out.

A quick video about why pandemic coverage can be worse than covering war.

Article in the New York Times: Photojournalists Struggle Through the Pandemic, with Masks and Long Lenses

How writing about trauma can give journalists nightmares: The Trauma of Writing About Trauma.

One of the best places for journalists to turn for information is the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’ journalism school. Dart also has programs in other parts of the world. They have many resources linked at the top of the page. Here is their trauma and journalism guide. This section on PTSD and mental health is something every journalist should look through, and they have tips for journalists reporting on COVID-19. The DART Center also has a series of webinars about reporting on COVID-19.

If you’d like something quick and easily accessible to read first, the Global Investigative Journalism Network has a great discussion with two of the leaders of the Dart Center. They also have resources available in several different languages.

Poynter article: How Journalists Can Take Care of Themselves While Covering Trauma

The Committee to Protect Journalists looks after journalists who are threatened and killed. They keep a list of those who die doing their job every year. But even this group does not perhaps take stress as seriously as they should. Their very useful Journalist Security Guide contains 72 pages and just two of them focus on what it calls “stress reactions.” The document however does have lots of useful information for those working in war zones, high crime areas or covering natural or manmade disasters.

The ACOS Alliance is a coalition of organizations that works for safe and responsible journalistic practices. (Ask your employer to endorse the organization’s Journalist Safety Principals.)  If you are looking for hostile environment training, this is a good place to start.

The World Federation for Mental health has lots of information on trauma. It is not focused on journalists, but you may find something of value at their website.


Useful Books

Conversations on Conflict Photography, by Lauren Walsh

“There is so much suffering in the world. I don’t see why I should care about that person,” said the NYU student. “There’s nothing I can do anyway. So why should I be made to feel bad?” That question from her class several years ago led Lauren Walsh to write this book, and I’m glad she did. Walsh offers a response to everyone who may feel humanitarian fatigue from the growing amount of crisis imagery they may be exposed to. Walsh talks with 12 photojournalists, photo editors and humanitarian workers about what they do, exploring the complexities and ethical dilemmas they face in their work. An academic writing style, but of interest to anyone working in this area.

Shooting War, by Dr. Anthony Feinstein, Harold Evans

Feinstein portrays 18 conflict photographers, examining their motivations and delving into the effects on the photographer of long-term exposure to trauma. As a neuropsychiatrist, Feinstein has studied the effects of war and conflict on journalists for more than two decades.

How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope You Never Need, written by Judith Matloff (one of our speakers) from Columbia University. You can pre-order it here.


Other Resources

B&H Photo and Video has several podcasts that may be of interest (here’s the list to all of their work):

Photojournalists Covering the Coronavirus

Under Every Yard of Sky” – Sebastian Meyer and Iraq’s First Photo Agency

Conflict Photography – Motivation and Consequence – B&H Photo and Video staff speak with Dr. Anthony Feinstein about his book, Shooting War, profiled above.

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