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.