'Social Distancing' Isn't Realistic for Photojournalists

'Social Distancing' Isn't Realistic for Photojournalists

Photojournalism is a contact sport. Or at least it used to be, before the coronavirus rolled into town. Despite the health risks with taking photographs of people in close quarters or crowds, photographers at news organizations around the country are still, more or less, on the job.

That doesn't mean they aren’t taking precautions though. While reporters working with words can often phone, email, or video conference with a source, it’s not possible to get photographs of people without being around people. Photojournalists put themselves at risk just to do what’s required of them for the job. The seriousness of this global pandemic can’t be conveyed in words alone; Striking photos of once-packed public spaces standing empty, or sporting events without spectators, can show better than just words alone can tell.

I asked working photojournalists what they are doing to maintain the health and safety, of both themselves and their sources while working through the period of social distancing and quarantining that’s swept the country in light of the COVID-19 disease, an upper-respiratory tract illness that can result in death.

“It's sometimes difficult to adhere to CDC guidelines of 6 feet away when you need to speak to people, get their names, etc. but everyone is conscious of that and doing their best,” said Heather Khalifa, a staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Also I've been using lots of hand sanitizer and now keep disinfectant wipes on the side of my think tank camera bag where I normally keep water.”

Khalifa said that she wipes down her gear constantly now, and that her editors have told her to use long glass where possible. She described coverage shifting significantly with the cancellation of most sports, and for real-estate features, she was told not to enter anyone’s home. Those cancellations hurt even more for freelance photojournalists, which represent a sizable chunk of the working press these days as news organizations downsize, most often starting with photographers.

“I usually only get a couple of assignments a week. One to two high school sports games, and one to two community events,” said Karen Gioia, a freelance photojournalist in Western New York. “With all those things canceled for the foreseeable future, I’m not sure if I’ll even get any assignments." She said that she hasn’t had any calls yet for the week.

Other photographers described a change in their routines. Jessica Christian, a staff photojournalist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about what her new normal is on Twitter, including wearing a mask and gloves with an “outdoor jacket” she doesn’t bring into the house, as well as washing clothes and showering immediately after her shift as much as possible.

For its part, the National Press Photographers Association has compiled a COVID-19 resource guide that deals not only with safety during the pandemic, but mental health and business issues that photographers may face while covering or weathering the crisis.

Are you a photojournalist that’s had to change your routine? What are you doing to keep yourself and the people you photograph safe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I was in the business for 48 years, and still do a assignment from time to time. That being said, I find interesting that the photojournalist are not like we were. We got involved, we didn't take sides we were there to tell a story. We didn't Photoshop or work it was straight out of camera, and we had the negatives to prove it. There were no "fake" photos or not from the people I knew. Straight up, straight out, no more no less. You look at the images and make up your own mind. When I was shootings an assignment, about a year ago, I had one person say to me "I don't care it all fake photography, fake news, you know photoshop to favor your side." I said no it's not, I shoot film and print in the darkroom, no Photoshopping, and I'm back shooting more film than digital. If I need digital I use a cell phone.
Have fun Keep it honest

Interesting take even though I'm not sure how true it is. Even when you're shooting film, you can control the narrative through your choice of composition. That's not exactly a new skill and photographers have been using it since at least the Great Depression. As far as image manipulation, I'm not sure where you're seeing a whole lot of that in the world of journalism these days. Cropping, color correction, exposure correction, and maybe noise reduction is about all I see from serious journalistic outlets (I'm not talking about the Inquirer here). All of those things were available in the darkroom as well. PS is rampant in commercial and fashion, but not so much in photojournalism even today.

If there's a problem on the part of the photojournalists, it's the subject matter that the photographers are pointing their lenses at or the compositions that they're selecting and that was just as true in the past. I suspect that your problem has less to do with photojournalists and more to do with the actual reporting and editing that goes on with opinion pieces and hard news being intermingled to the point where it's almost impossible at times to tell what's what.

I would have agreed with you until I watched a documentary on paps.. this guy said he was photographing a british TV presenter and her husband outside a bar and he was using continuous shooting until he got a shot of her with her eyes closed. The next day the front page of one of the tabloids went with the headline ‘sozzled again’.. the guy openly admitted she had a soft drink and was just talking but he caught her mid blink to imply she was drunk.

You don’t have to edit a shot for it to tell lies.

Example: Last year I was covering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, at the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Fl. During a movie presentation, a WW2 Vet appeared to be crying. His eyes were watering, and he periodically held a handkerchief to his face as tears streamed, and his wife appeared to comfort him. I took a good hundred or so frames of this, and one shot, in particular, stood out. I had my shot! However.... before leaving the event, I politely asked the man's wife if her husband suffers from any health issues. She said her husband had terrible allergies that made his eyes water. I deleted the sequence from my camera before any of the images could be downloaded. But... as I walked towards the doors to exit the building, I saw our writer interviewing another vet. He sat down in the lobby as they spoke, in front of a mural. 75 or so frames later...

Journalists, wedding photographers, DJs, sound engineers, videographers, nurses, physics therapists, live musicians.

There are a million and one occupations that simply don’t work without social contact.

I’ve already lost over 10k in upcoming billings due to canceled weddings, conferences and reallocation of marketing budgets.

Hawai’i is basically at a stand still since the vast majority of our economy depends on tourism, which at this point is and for all practical reasons, non-existant.

Passing the time refining my After Effects skills and learning web design.

Things have ground to a halt here in Detroit too. At least you have warm temps and blue skies.

Too bad we can’t go out and experience it. Haha.

So you're saying this could be the cure for paparazzi?

I'm afraid not. Don't they work with long lenses?


Celebrities can expect an increase in UAV overflights

This time in March last year, I had shot twenty-three assignments by now and booked another ten. So far this March, I have shot only three assignments for the paper, one for a yacht club, and one for the local symphony orchestra. Everything I would have been shooting has been canceled; Tampa Bay Rays spring training games, concerts, events, school sports, fundraisers- gone. As for glass, I can always keep far enough away from a subject and still get good angles/compositions; the problem is that sometimes there are other people in the area that will not or cannot move or observe a six-foot distance standard. Also, I tend to either climb things, and get down on the floor or the ground a lot, so I always need to be mindful. I sanitize my hands and gear continually- every time I open a door or come in contact with a new surface. My old photo vest is back in service, with small sanitizer bottles in easy to reach pockets. My Think Tank backpack stays on my back, or it's left in the car if practical. I sanitize my camera bodies and lenses immediately after unavoidable contact with my own hands if there is any chance of contamination, and as soon as possible, I wash hands with soap and water. You don't have to be in someone's face to get their name, and when practical I send group shots to the event organizer who has pre-agreed to email back name lists or stats. In March 2019, I would have been off to my 9th shoot this week "Community Day" at a wildlife sanctuary. Tonight, I'll be pressure canning chicken stock. I'll take its picture for "stock photos".

In this March 9, 2019 photo, Baltimore Orioles Eric Young Jr (28) clashes with Tampa Rays Yandy DIaz (2) at first base, on the way to score in an Orioles 17-15 win over the Rays, at Charlotte Sports Park, in Port Charlotte Fl.

Unfortunately, this situation affects us all- there are plenty of jobs that require social contacts. It is good if you can work remotely being a writer for a local newspaper, but being a photojournalists means staying in the center of events. That's actually the reason why I've never wanted to work in the media, just not my cup of tea. Still, my photography hobby is almost taken away from me so now I just stay some retouching some old portrait shoots via Photodiva and hoping things will get back to normal soon.

I've been noticing that again, news outlets are choosing sensationalism (is that a word?) over safety. Just like they HAVE to send reporters out in the thick of a hurricane... "This is Fred Smith From ABCD reporting to you from the leading edge of hurricane Armageddonella at the edge of this pier that's about to be ripped off and swept out to sea, so you the viewer can be impressed at the lengths my producer will go to..."
Now the reporters are in the street, in the park, at the beach (with the idiot college Easter Break crowd), etc.
Just stop.

Unfortunately, this situation affects us all. Journalists, wedding photographers, DJs, videographers, nurses. There are a lot of jobs that require social contacts. During Covid-19 pandemic very hard to work.