With COVID-19 impacting our world on a global scale, it has become an important part of social history that needs to be (safely) documented not just for tomorrow, but also future generations.
An unprecedented and all-encompassing crisis that has entered our lives in every direction, COVID-19 is leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Who would be better to document the developments at the epicenter of the action than someone who is already involved with the National Guard? Master Sergeant Matt Hecht is a visual storyteller for the New Jersey National Guard. Having joined the U.S. Air Force in 2011, after four years on active duty, Hecht decided to continue his career in the Air National Guard. The appeal was that the Guard allowed Hecht to continue his service but also to homestead in the state he is originally from. In 2015 he was hired to work at the joint Army and Air Guard Public Affairs Office.
As the pandemic first appeared, Hecht was concerned, but the situation felt like something remote. What caught his attention was the viciousness of how the virus spread. Soon, as the first cases appeared in the U.S., Hecht knew National Guard would get involved. Although citizens are generally used to hearing about combat deployments, the National Guard is now doing exactly what they are supposed to, namely, assisting communities in crises. Hecht is a part of a small group that works full-time for the Guard, alongside the assistance provided by citizen soldiers such as the medics, truck drivers, and military police who are supporting the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management and Department of Health.
After experiencing risky situations during his deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hecht points out that those situations had quantifiable dangers. This time, however, they have been faced with an invisible threat and many unknowns. The team that Hecht is a part of has been split up for several weeks now, so not having the face-to-face interactions has been challenging in this line of work. Only himself and one other military photographer have got together for jobs, while the two civilians in their office have been teleworking.
During jobs, Hecht receives masks, while medics and nurses had higher levels of protection to directly interact with patients. Afterward, all of his camera equipment gets wiped down to decrease any risk of infection, with uniforms going straight in the wash.
With the obvious danger and risk to Hecht's physical health, the jobs have also been mentally draining. Working at the COVID-19 drive-thru site in Paramu, Hecht had not seen so many sick people all in one place. The biggest challenge arises when a photographer has to consider the privacy and comfort of patients while also recording crucial images that depict the reality of the situation. Hecht points out that doing so not only gives taxpayers a transparent view of what their military is doing but also helps record history. The images that are captured are public domain and will eventually be in the Library of Congress.
Hecht had no expectations of what he was going to be faced with, whether the images would depict anxiety or fear, but when he showed some of his messages to friends, their first response was "hope."