Their equipment is stowed away in closets. During the general lockdown, the world of photography has been put on hold until further notice. Just like one-third of world population, photographers are isolated at home. Cultural events have been cancelled to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. Commissions, reportages, and book launches have been postponed…
The consequences of this unprecedented crisis are taking a toll on photographers worldwide. Confined to their apartments or live-in studios, several photographers talked to Blind Magazine about their daily lives, their worries and hopes, and about their view of history in the making.
In France, even before the head of state Emmanuel Macron declared lockdown on March 16, museums, galleries, and festivals had begun shutting down one by one. The photographer Manon Lanjouère’s exhibition got cancelled at the last minute: “I was supposed to have a show at the Le Mans Photography Festival. I went there with a large sculpture and several prints two days before the confinement measures were announced. The festival was cancelled the following day.” This would have been the 26-year-old artist’s final exhibition for the year. “I was able to exhibit at the MEP [Maison Européenne de la Photographie] in February, so I’m not doing too poorly,” she added with a sigh of relief.
In most countries in Europe, America, and Asia, all non-essential travel has been prohibited. The vast majority of reportages have been shelved. The underwater photographer Alexis Rosenfeld, who is currently secluded in the south of France, has seen his assignment schedule turned inside out. “I don’t know what to do, I had to put everything off. I was supposed to go to New Caledonia, but the territory is likewise under travel restrictions. This is problematic because my photographic expedition schedule is based on the biological calendar of local species,” worries the wildlife photographer who is a regular contributor to National Geographic, Le Figaro Magazine, and other international publications.
The world of the press, too, is grinding to a halt. The situation is worrisome in a sector already in crisis. French photographer Nicola Lo Calzo works regularly for daily French newspapers, particularly doing portraits. In addition to several exhibitions being postponed until September, all his commissions have been suspended. “This is a stressful situation. I have been asked to cover Covid-19 in Paris. But I’m a portrait photographer, I don’t know if I’m ready to do news coverage. What’s more, the job is risky,” admitted Lo Calzo. “For three hundred euros, I’m not sure it’s even worth it.”
For their own safety and that of their families, many photographers have decided to stay home. Tomas van Houtryve, a member of Agency VII, confined in France with his family, commented on his decision: “I don’t want to endanger my family by going out into the field to take pictures. But if there is an assignment where social distance is respected, my press card is at the ready. This is a historic a moment just like the Great War was. As a witness to history, it’s important we cover it.” Van Houtryve had returned from the United States twenty-four hours before Donald Trump closed the borders.
Luca Nizzoli Toetti, an Italian photographer based in Milan, whom we were lucky to reach, is working at the front lines. Italy, the worst-hit country ahead of Spain and China, is in total lockdown. At the beginning of the epidemic, Toetti photographed the deserted streets of Lombardy’s capital. His photos were published in the French daily Libération. “We’re trying to tell a meaningful story. We have a responsibility as photographers. But this is a personal choice,” said the freelance photojournalist, who has since decided to limit his travels as much as possible.
Safety first: the watchword is the same in photo agencies. “We are in a state of war and we must follow the rules,” insists Clément Saccomani, managing director at the Amsterdam-based photo agency NOOR. “I encourage photographers to stay at home. Our world operates in the long term, and things will pick up again. That’s when we will need photographers.” The agency recommends photographers follow a set of guidelines formulated by Everyday Projects.
While agencies and professionals are aware of the risks, Luca Nizzoli Toetti alerts us to a real problem posed by amateur photographers: “People go outside to take photos for fun and do not follow safety instructions.” The democratization of photography raises further questions about the role of the profession. “As a photographer, I wonder about our trade. Because some of the most striking images are made by amateur photographers, for instance by hospital staff,” Toetti points out.
The economy in trouble
In a sector already in dire straits, the situation could spell job insecurity for many photographers. “Economically, if it goes on for more than a month, the situation will become critical,” worries the photographer Corentin Fohlen, on lockdown in Paris. “Reportages, exhibitions, everything is being postponed until May. I was supposed to release a book on Haiti, but it too has been delayed. Rescue plans are being discussed, but these will surely come with restrictions. We are not salaried employees, we have no fixed income, so we always drop to the bottom of the pile.” Nicolas Lo Calzo voiced similar concerns: “If it continues, [the situation] could become catastrophic. We schedule exhibitions six months in advance, so we have some room to maneuver. What worries me the most is my work for the press.”
For his part, Alexis Rosenfeld is facing a funding freeze from his partners. “I know where they’re coming from. But if I don’t have partners to back me up, I can’t finance my expeditions. Freelance photographers like me can’t count on unemployment. There’s no safety net.” Clement Saccomani of the NOOR Agency confirms: “There will be a substantial loss of income, as we are well aware. We must keep this in mind and act in solidarity. We must take initiative collectively and stress the interdependence between photographers, clients, and agencies,” he insisted, while calling on public authorities to get involved. “On a European and global scale, we need to create collective funding programs addressing the consequences of the virus, and appeal to authors and photographers to document collective history.”
“A really creative period”
While feeling the crunch, many see compulsory confinement as a tremendous creative opportunity. “I find it quite nice not to be inundated by a million emails a day. We can really disconnect. It has helped to clear my head, I’m entering a really creative period,” said Manon Lanjouère. Time has expanded. We take the opportunity to sort through, classify, and edit our photos. “This is a reset button. I’m really taking advantage of it because normally I don’t have the time to do these things,” said Alexis Rosenfeld appreciatively. We are adapting. Photography classes continue online, between “video breaks.”
Many photographers keep lockdown diaries on social networks, especially Instagram. Peter Van Agtmael of Magnum Photos publishes one picture of New York a day and recounts his daily life within four walls. Others, like Corentin Fohlen, have set up a photo studio in their apartment. The thirty-eight-year-old photographer did the cover of a special coronavirus insert for the weekend edition of the French newspaper Libération of March 21–22. In the picture, taken in Paris, in his son’s room converted into a photo studio, a white face mask stands out against the pitch black of a barely visible human silhouette. The photographer has produced a series of offbeat self-portraits featuring the medical face mask to “play down the situation and provide a reflection on hyper-globalization. [He is also trying] to show that the virus is as much the disease as it is a part of social networks.”
Witnesses to our time, photographers observe and capture the world put on hold. As Corentin Fohlen concluded in his latest Instagram post, they want to “bring information in the present and document it for the future.”
By Michaël Naulin