Since the onset of coronavirus, many newsroom staffers have been working at home. Photojournalists don’t have that luxury. To do their job, they must be in the thick of the action, and even seasoned veterans are unnerved by the risks this poses.
Los Angeles Times photographer Marcus Yam was photographing hospital workers treating coronavirus patients in intensive care when he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. At first, he thought someone else was staring back at him.
“I didn’t recognize myself in the personal protective equipment and full-face powered air-purifying respirator I was wearing,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner wrote in The Los Angeles Times. “As a photojournalist, I’ve made a life out of navigating the unknown. But this pandemic is unpredictable and nebulous and has challenged my personal equilibrium.”
In the same article, photographer Allen J. Schaben, struck a somber note: “One slip-up in our routine could prove deadly to ourselves, our families and others.”
Photojournalists are also at risk on another front. Crowds of protesters against police violence following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in police custody in Minneapolis last month, are a breeding ground for COVID-19. Adding to the angst, police attacks against photographers during these protests and civil unrest are increasing. Photographers have been wounded by rubber bullets, pepper spray and other chemical irritants. One of them, Linda Tirado, permanently lost an eye.
In June, the heads of four photo agencies joined the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a letter to the National Governors Association, calling for investigations of police brutality against visual journalists.
“We are particularly alarmed by the more than 60 reported cases involving photographers and video journalists, the majority of them at the hands of the police,” the letter stated. It was signed by leaders of the Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and Agence France Presse.
If photographers must work on the frontlines and face greater risks, what safety strategies do they have in place? IJNet asked three veterans in the thick of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and COVID-19 coverage to share their experiences. They all struck a common note: planning is vital.
In mid-March, freelance photographer Yunghi Kim spent three days documenting how the virus was changing life on the New York City subway, a major artery for millions of New Yorkers.
“I was doing this as the disease was evolving,” said Kim, who has covered conflicts around the globe, including Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan. “I had no idea how many people I came in contact with who might have been infected. When I heard it could be asymptomatic, I thought, ‘Whoa, I could have it.’”
Kim, a Brooklyn resident, adheres to a strict safety regimen. When she gets home from photographing, she dumps her clothes — including sneakers — in a garbage bag and carries it to the laundry room. After she showers, she wipes down camera gear, batteries, iPhone, press pass, the door and floor with a bleach and water mix. In the field, she wears N100 or N95 masks, the same type healthcare workers wear.
“I learned to do what emergency doctors do,” said Kim. “That’s where we got our tips.”
When the BLM movement started, Kim started documenting it. Her protest photos have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
But it hasn’t been easy. Late one night, Kim was photographing clashes between police and demonstrators. Her press ID and camera gear were in full view when a policeman shot pepper spray into her eyes. “I was literally blind and paralyzed,” said Kim. A bystander led her to street medics treating wounded protesters.
According to Kim, networking is vital. She formed a text group with other photographers to share information. “In conflict areas, you want to buddy up with people,” she said. “In these situations, there is a lot of camaraderie.”
Kim also uses Twitter like a police scanner to track the action, monitoring the tweets of activists and protesters for an inside view. “Learn how to take calculated risks. Know the situation, pay attention to what you want to focus on, and have a sense of where the story is going,” she said. “It helps to have good instincts, street smarts and courage.” And be prepared for the unpredictable, she added.
In May, instinct saved cameraman Ralf Oberti from impending disaster. He was filming a stand-off between protesters and police in Washington, D.C., when the crowd began pushing past a line of police in riot gear. Officers on horseback arrived on the scene. “I knew it was time to get out there,” said Oberti, who began filming protests years ago in his native Chile. He has done projects for National Geographic, Smithsonian and Discovery Channel.
“When protesters start running from the police, that’s the real danger, especially when you are carrying heavy equipment,” said Oberti. “You have to get a sense of the crowd. Stay out of the middle where you can be trapped. Move to the sidelines and look for a way out. If possible, don’t work alone.”
For Kim and Oberti, covering crises and unrest is routine, but when BLM supporters hit the streets in May, local media had to plan quickly. Cara Owsley, director of photography at The Cincinnati Enquirer, scrambled to find safety goggles for her staff. She urged them to use whatever protective gear they had, and some photographers wore bike helmets and reflective vests to cover the protests.
The photo staff worked in groups and checked in with her every 30 to 40 minutes. She advised them to wear comfortable shoes, drink water to avoid dehydration, carry snacks and pack lightly in the field.
On May 30, Owsley and some of her staff were in the crowd when police launched pepper balls, a chemical that affects the eyes and nose.
“Of all the protests I have covered [in Cincinnati] over the years, I never felt fear,” she said. “This time I felt I could come home with an injury. It was much more intense with the police, and the coronavirus pandemic made it even more dangerous.”
If you or your staff are going out in the field, consider making a safety plan. Some resources to help develop these plans are below:
- The Committee to Protect Journalists addresses threats in #SafetyInFocus, a series of videos based on photojournalists’ experiences, and in safety advisories on covering COVID-19 and covering U.S. protests.
- The National Press Photographers Association shared a page on covering “COVID-19 and protests that has links to dozens of reports and articles on safety, mental health and legal rights of photographers.
- Poynter Institute offers 23 guidelines for journalists covering protests.
Sherry Ricchiardi, Ph.D. is a co-author of ICFJ's Disaster and Crisis Coverage guide and international media trainer who has worked with journalists around the world on conflict reporting, trauma and safety issues.
Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Nathan Dumlao.
This story was updated on July 15, 2020.