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COVID-19: Photojournalists on the frontlines

COVID-19: Photojournalists on the frontlines

Dispatched into the field to cover the health crisis, press photographers are often like first responders in a disaster zone. They share with us their views of the epidemic, discussing everything from safety measures to insights into their job.

Streets of New York under lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis © Mark Abramson for The New York Times

“– Gloves, masks, antibacterial gels in your bag or your pockets.

– Wipe down all your equipment when you get home, including your telephone.

– Carry your travel papers and press card with you at all times.

– Whenever possible, ask the persons you are going to photograph for permission. People may be more sensitive about having their photo taken at this time.”

This is how the journalist Rafael Yaghobzadeh, who has been covering the situation in France from before the lockdown, summarized some safety measures recommended to photographers on social networks. Every time he goes out to document the situation, even if he doesn’t run into anyone, he goes through all the motions, because “I may have come in contact with contaminated surfaces such as doors, ATMs, coins, etc.”

Journalists who gear up for work in the field, even if the assignment is just around the corner from their place of residence, are developing new habits. “I wear gloves and an N95 mask every day; and every time I go outside, I do my best to wipe down all my equipment before entering my apartment,” says Mark Abramson who covers the crisis in the U.S. for The New York Times. He adds somewhat bewildered: “At the end of the day, I’m not sure whether I’m safe or not, and that worries me. I think that ultimately I would be completely safe only if I didn’t leave my apartment for the next couple months.”

© Rafael Yaghobzadeh

Covering the crisis

For the time being, Mark Abramson ventures into New York streets: “Some places are completely deserted while in others there are a lot of people outdoors, going about their business. The contrast is striking and, frankly, startling. I think that the truth lies somewhere in this contrast.” It is difficult to show this contrast in images, unless you line up different scenes into a single series.

There are many photojournalists who, like Abramson, are trying to document the crisis. Some go to the frontlines, like Alex Majoli in Italy, for example, who covered overcrowded hospitals for Vanity Fair. Fabio Bucciarelli, in turn, went so far as to photograph people on their deathbeds. Others take a different approach: “There are countless ways of telling this story,” observes Mark Abramson. “It’s enormous.”

From the series Distanciation sociale © Sébastien Leban

Showing the invisible

In order to bear witness, some combine photographs of empty streets with other viewpoints, such as the interior of their homes or what they see outside their windows. Sébastien Leban, who lives in Paris and has done several magazine assignments in the field, does precisely that. In addition to his job, he has decided to do a unique series entitled Social Distancing.

“I toyed with the concept of distancing. Because we must stay apart from one another, I envisioned another way of taking photographs. Using a telephoto lens, I shot portraits through my window of people walking in the street, sometimes wearing face masks,” explained Leban. For his part, Rafael Yaghobzadeh, along with several other photographers, formed a group in the 20th Arrondissement in Paris to document the situation in their neighborhood. “Our daily life is going to become a part of collective memory…,” he insisted.

Alvaro Ybarra, based in Madrid, follows a similar credo: “I believe it’s important to make a record of what we are experiencing in the margins of politics, so that we preserve plural memories of these events for future generations. We bear witness to the largest threat we have faced since World War II.”

From the series Distanciation sociale © Sébastien Leban

The press card

Everyone we talked to agrees that while the situation is dangerous when one is exposed to the risk of contamination, this is not a war zone. “I think that there is no comparing the two,” said Sébastien Leban who had covered armed conflicts in the past. He admits that those who are working in the frontlines, as in hospitals or among the dying, could experience some post-traumatic stress, but “this has not been my case personally.”

Leban, however, points to other risks looming over his profession, namely official restrictions. Although he had a valid press card and authorization papers, he ran into a group of policemen in Paris who wouldn’t hear any of it and slapped him with a completely unjustified fine. “This was a bad experience,” he noted philosophically, while warning against attacks on the freedom of information. “This is paramount,” he insisted.

From the series Distanciation sociale © Sébastien Leban

The economic situation

“In Spain, unlike in other countries, the government and other authorities are heavily censoring the media. Journalists are denied access to hospitals or any other site where the disease is being fought. The authorities themselves disseminate the majority of images available in the media,” noted Alvaro Ybarra.

Another area of daily concern for the journalists is, like for everyone else, their financial situation. Sébastien Leban, for example, has lost 80% of his usual assignments. In New York, Mark Abramson also sounds worried: “My biggest fear, once we get through this crisis, even though I don’t think we’re quite there yet, has to do with the economic ramifications for the United States and the rest of the world. I also wonder about the impact of this crisis and this whole situation on the place of photojournalism in the world.”

Streets of New York under lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis © Mark Abramson for The New York Times

By Laurence Cornet, Jonas Cuénin, and Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

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