Coronavirus and shooting the right story

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By Savannah Dodd

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic so far, there have been many questions raised about what it means to visually represent a public health crisis ethically. People across the industry have voiced concerns about the visual trope of Asians wearing facemasks employed in articles about the virus, about the limits of what should and should not be seen during a pandemic, and about the discrepancy in how crises are visually represented between the Global South and the Global North.

However, many photojournalists are struggling to visually represent anything at all during this pandemic. Lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus have had severe consequences for the media industry. Budget cuts mean that staff photographers have fewer assignments, and commissions for freelance photojournalists are scarce. Meanwhile, photojournalists who have secured work struggle to move about freely to do their job, despite being classed as essential workers, and freelancers have to figure out how to do that work safely, often without much support.

In April, Alexandria Neason at Columbia Journalism Review wrote a thoughtful article questioning what constitutes “essential journalism” during a pandemic, articulating the kind of stories we need:

The public must be updated daily—not with contextless numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, but with reports on what municipalities and the federal government are doing to slow spread; what plans there are to support the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs due to covid-19; how communities under shelter-in-place orders are faring; how children, locked out of their schools, are learning and eating; what scientists and doctors are discovering about the virus; how people are preparing for the coming elections.

Writing from the perspective of print journalism, she affirms, “Much of this reporting can be done remotely.”

If you want to write a story about doctors working in an overwhelmed hospital, you can do that through interviews over the phone or via Zoom. But photojournalists can’t do that. They have to be there. For photojournalists, remote working requires a greater shift in how we understand what makes a good visual story and how those stories are made.

The stories that we need right now might not be the stories that we are able to easily shoot and show. It is easy to photograph people in the street who may or may not be breaking social distancing protocols, but what does that add to our visual narrative of the pandemic? Instead, it may be more valuable to tell visual stories about the UK government’s confusing public health messaging that has shaped people’s attitudes toward social distancing. This is not at easy to represent visually.

Furthermore, it is difficult to create visually compelling images that show how the government has failed in its response to the virus without showing the suffering of those most affected. People hooked up to ventilators make for visually arresting photographs. Politicians delivering public addresses, usually, do not.

Yet when we are given those visually arresting photographs, they do not seem to sit comfortably with many members of the public. When a photograph from a Belgian hospital ward was published on Reuters’ Instagram, there was a palpable tension between the need for the reality of the virus to be witnessed and concern for the dignity of the patient who is pictured facedown, naked on a hospital bed.

There was also a patent awareness that this photograph shares a common visual language with the types of photographs we have seen from the Ebola crisis. We are accustomed to seeing images from Sub-Saharan Africa that portray the effects of a virus through the representation of someone who is suffering, in an extremely vulnerable position, and unable to give consent. In fact, these are exactly the kinds of images that tend to win photojournalism awards.

Yet, we are shocked when we see the same type of imagery replicated on European soil. As Sarah Sentilles asserts, this has less to do with geographic location as it does the colour of the subject’s skin: “The darker the skin, the more likely we are to have full-frontal views of the dead and the dying, even when those suffering bodies are just across town, down the street, right next door.”

While some lauded the Reuters photograph for showing the impact of the coronavirus and for replicating the kind of visual language we see from distant, faraway places, others expressed the age-old sentiment that “two wrongs do not make a right”:

“We need to cut the double standard. The selective outrage of what’s unethical in documentation. We need to stop being hypocrites & start speaking against unethical documentation for ALL people.” – Martha Tadesse

Maybe this pandemic gives us an opportunity think more creatively about how to tell complex stories through photographs, without relying exclusively on photographing the most vulnerable. Maybe this also calls for photo editors to broaden their understanding of what makes a “good” photograph or a “good” visual story.

For photojournalists to be able to produce visual stories remotely during this pandemic, we may also need to shift our expectations for how a good visual story is made. As Rachel Oldroyd points out in her article for the EJN, the majority of professional journalists are white and come from privileged backgrounds, and are not best placed to tell complex stories about the people most affected from the virus: “We have largely reported on those suffering, not with them, because so few of us are from those communities experiencing the full brunt of the wider impact.”

Maybe we need to work more closely with the people in our images to create work “with” them, rather than “on” them. Maybe there are ways of bringing people, especially the most vulnerable, into the process of image creation through participatory photographic methods that can be implemented remotely. However, this needs further exploration as it raises many questions, particularly about authorship and journalistic integrity.

Finally, we need photo editors to be more active in seeking photographers from other backgrounds and who are based in the communities that are most affected. The statistics have shown that Black people of African descent are dying at a rate three times higher than white people in the UK. Yet, Black perspectives are significantly underrepresented in our visual record of the pandemic, not to mention across the photojournalism industry as a whole. As Andrew Jackson and I have written elsewhere: “there is a tension in photojournalism between the ethics of telling the truth about the world we live in and the lack of representation of the range of experiences, and therefore the range of ‘truths’, that exist within society.” The coronavirus has catalysed many shifts in our working culture, as have the recent protests against police brutality in the United States. This shift toward increased diversity in representation has been a long time coming.

And maybe, if we are lucky, some of these changes will outlive the pandemic, and we will be left with a photojournalistic practice that values even greater nuance, depth, and complexity than before.

Author photo

Savannah Dodd is the founder and director of the Photography Ethics Centre. With a background in anthropology and a personal practice in documentary photography, Savannah founded the Centre in 2017 with the aim of raising awareness about ethics and promoting ethical literacy across the photography industry. She earned her master’s in anthropology and sociology at the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies in Geneva (2015) and her bachelor’s in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis (2012). Prior to founding the Centre, she worked in the development sector for NGOs and IGOs in Switzerland, Uganda, and Thailand. Savannah is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology through a study of ethics and representation in photographic archives at Queen’s University Belfast.