Despite dominating life around the world for over a year, the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to have a defining set of images that will likely represent this major global event in the future.
Photographers are, of course, bearing witness to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether it’s empty city streets due to lockdowns, everyday people fitted with face masks, healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), or Covid-related events like the cruise ship debacle. But are there specific leading images that clearly define the pandemic?
‘I can’t say that there was one iconic image from any news source,’ Reuters global head of pictures, Rickey Rogers, told The Atlantic. ‘An iconic image brings all the elements together, and this story was just too complex for that.’
Iconic images from WWII to bushfires
A powerful news photo etches itself into peoples’ minds when they see it, and it becomes a part of people’s recollection of events.
For instance, Robert Capa’s The Magnificent Eleven series is synonymous with World War II’s D-Day; the horror of the Vietnam conflict was brought home with Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl or Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution; Tank Man and Tiannamen Square; 9/11 and perhaps the Falling Man or the numerous images of smoke billowing from the towers; and the Syrian refugee crises in Europe and the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body in Turkey. From the moment they were published the images had a profound impact, and in retrospect they continue to represent these events.
There are many other powerful images, such as in Vietnam or 9/11, but only a handful stand in the same league as the aforementioned pictures.
More recently there were numerous defining images of Australia’s bushfire crisis. Many were captured by the Sydney Morning Herald photo department, led by chief staff photographer Nick Moir – one of the country’s most experienced bushfire photographers.
Nick was co-ordinating the Herald photo department, including the likes of Dean Sewell, Wolter Peeters, Kate Keraghty, Alex Ellinghausen, Louise Kennerley, and James Brickwood. Back at the Herald offices, managing photo editor Mags King was working through hundreds of images per day to find work that represented what was happening on the ground.
‘You’re receiving between 50 and 100 images from different people,’ Mags told Inside Imaging. ‘And it’s your job as photo editor to pick the right picture at such a quick pace. And you’ve got people who are risking their lives, whether it’s a bushfire event or a war zone, and it’s you’re responsibility to be as reactive and decisive in your job.
‘It was extremely intense. I’d leave the building at 10pm and I couldn’t feel the ground. It was a mixture of adrenalin, stress and the pace. And afterwards there is a physical and mental impact. It was very emotional. But I think as a photo editor, those are the moments I live for. It’s when you really realise that’s how amazing the people are who you work for – and I mean my team, the photographers. They are incredible.’
When Nick filed his image, Run (above), showing firefighters fleeing from the intense heat caused by a December 2019 bushfire nearby Orangeville in NSW, Mags was at home communicating with the Herald‘s night photo editor, David Porter. As soon as they saw it, it became clear this was a significant picture. The forthcoming NSW South Coast bushfires would later flare up, leading to even more outstanding photographic coverage that reached a global audience, such as Matt Abbott’s award-winning Lake Conjola image.
After the bushfires, there was barely a moment for photojournalists to take a breath before the onset of Covid. And this new ‘news event’ came with its own set of challenges.
‘So many photographers across the world are asking the question: “how do you cover something that’s not there?” I’m not a photographer but I can imagine it’s a really good space to be in creatively,’ Mags said. ‘It heightens your observational skills, and there is nothing wrong with photographing an empty space. It can still convey an emotion, or transport you somewhere as a viewer.’
The challenge of documenting Covid is evident when viewing the prestigious World Press Photo Contest 2021 finalist images. Despite the devastation caused by the pandemic across the globe, there is a distinct lack of Covid photos.
Of the six top prize nominees, just one is a Covid photo. And only one other image, of the US Black Lives Matter protests, shows signs of the pandemic – subjects wearing masks.
Only eight of the 45 category finalists are related to Covid, including three in the sports category, and two covering European border closures and empty cities. The World Press Photo jury didn’t unearth a heap of award-winning Covid-related content, and it’s most likely there was an abundance of pandemic-related photos among the 74,000 submissions.
As highlighted by Rickey Rogers, the Reuters photo editor, the Covid pictures don’t really bring all the complex elements of the pandemic together.
The most memorable visual signifier, according to The Atlantic, is the stylised illustration of the microscopic Covid ball with its nasty red spikes. Despite the pandemic being a devastating ‘novel event’, the article partly attributes the lack of iconic photos due to nothing ‘truly new is happening’.
‘People are staying at home, people are dying in hospitals, people are socialising in small groups or not at all,’ writes Helen Lewis for The Atlantic. ‘How does a picture of a woman standing at her window convey that she doesn’t just happen to be there for a moment, but has been trapped inside for months, shielding her fragile immune system?’
While Covid impacts daily life, leading to strange and interesting new ways people interact and behave, nothing seems overly remarkable or memorable from a photographic perspective.
‘Before Australia went into the whole Covid mode, I was looking at images coming through from Europe, America, and Asia. But mainly Europe. There was a lot of portraiture of exhausted medical front line workers. The photos had very steely lighting, and appeared quite sanitised. But you can see in the eyes, and the markings on their faces (from wearing PPE), that it’s one of the most harrowing experiences they’d had.
‘At the beginning we weren’t really experiencing that in Australia, so how do we photograph Covid? First of all, the streets did become empty. I saw that as an opportunity to document it as it’s happening. We’re not trying to contrive a picture, or create an image that’s not there. So many photographers documented the empty streets, or the single car. Kate Geraghty, typically of her, was onto St Vincent’s (hospital) and was really pushing the envelope to get in there and document. She was rewarded in having that access.’
Mags spent most of last year sending photographers out on assignment to capture Covid-affected news events. She can effortlessly reel off standout pictures of noteworthy events captured by Herald photographers.
There was Cole Bennetts’ picture of an Anzac Day dawn service held in a driveway; Kate Geraghty’s coverage of the Ruby Princess cruise ship; Elise Derwin’s image series of Schoolies in Byron; Louise Kennerley’s portraits of Year 12 students forced to study at home; and an overcrowded Bondi Beach in March during the onset of Covid. See a gallery of 2020 Herald images here.
Some of these pictures appear in Photos1440, an annual exhibition currently showing at the State Library of NSW until April 25. The exhibition is a summary of the previous year’s work by the Herald photographers, and to mark its tenth year it’s also a retrospective of the last decade.
‘We’re in a time of reflection, after the year we’ve been through. Having an exhibition that visually takes you on a journey, with the bushfires at the start of the year to Covid. And then the Black Lives Matter protests. It was relentless in 2020.’
When Mags was trawling the Herald’s 202 archive to curate Photos1440, she found many of the powerful Covid pictures were intimate human stories about individual experiences. Surprisingly, many images never went to print. While the pandemic is as devastating as a natural disaster or a conflict, perhaps the reality is the devastation is much more silent.