Seeing is Believing – my take on visual communications and Covid.
Just recently I spotted a post on Facebook from a friend, “do you know anyone who’s had Covid or died from Covid?”. The replies were illuminating, and the inference of the question was that this whole pandemic has at best been exaggerated or at worse, is simply fake. My reply was, yes and yes. It did, however, start me thinking why so many people are willing to think that there’s some form of fakery going on, that we’re all being hoodwinked and taken for a ride and then it dawned on me – thousands have died, thousands have been on ventilators, spent weeks in ICU whilst our NHS cared for them but there is no visual touchstone for the wider public. We simply haven’t been able to fully bear witness to the story that’s unfolded over the last six months in the UK.
Photojournalists travel the world to bring not only a much-needed visual representation of stories to the wider public but to document history for future generations. Their work shines a light on and gives a platform to people and places and situations that would otherwise be devoid of photographic representation. This is key to advancing our understanding and giving knowledge to a wider audience, photojournalism brings a visual truth to often complex situations.
From natural disasters to war and conflict, through the power of photography the viewer can begin to grasp and understand the lives of others, to witness often painful truths. Arguably one image can not only educate the viewer far more than 1,000 words, it fosters empathy and understanding. It’s there before our eyes, we can see it.
Never was this truer than in the Ebola outbreak of 2014, through the brave work of photojournalists like John Moore and Daniel Berehulak, the world had a visual record of the true horrors of this deadly virus. The sheer awfulness of Ebola that left people dying alone, unable to be comforted in their final moments by family due to the virulence of the virus was painful to look at but we could not turn away. Our compassion and understanding of this awful situation was elevated, not only because of the incredibly brave photographers who chose to cover this story but, and perhaps more importantly, because the organisations in charge of the operation to help those afflicted gave the photographers access to do their job. To tell the story in all its grim reality.
As Covid started to take hold in countries across Europe, the full scale of this virus was plain to see. Photojournalists in Spain and Italy were starting to record and document what was happening in their countries, field hospitals had been set up, ICU wards were at capacity, breathless pensioners were sitting in chairs awaiting treatment. In New York, photographers were given access to hospitals and wards as the pandemic moved across the city. It was horrifying but it did what photojournalism is supposed to do – record history in the making whilst serving as the strongest possible warning that the virus was deadly serious.
In recent years the trend of the UK government has been to control imagery. The Prime Minister appointed the same ‘in-house’ photographer to Downing Street as he’d had whilst he was London Mayor. We see only what we are permitted to see. The role of impartial press photographer has been diminished under Johnson’s leadership and the imagery we now see of him used regularly in our newspapers is largely PR handouts taken by his appointed court photographer. I digress, sort of.
This government’s communications strategy preferred to show the nation a one-dimensional view of Covid, the ‘Dunkirk’ spirit. The clapping for the NHS, portraits of NHS workers after long shifts with faces bruised from their PPE, the triumph of the pop-up Nightingale Hospitals, erected in record time to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of Covid patients. All worthy parts of a much greater narrative around Covid but with the very essence of the story missing, where were the sick? For the public to really understand, for them to grasp the seriousness of this pandemic and the ravages it can inflict on a human body, we must be able to see it. Photojournalists must be able to do their job. To report the truth they needed access to hospitals, they needed to get alongside doctors and nurses to document what it means to try and save the life of a patient with Covid, to see those lives in the balance, hooked up to ventilators.
This isn’t mawkish. This isn’t distasteful. This isn’t sick.
This is photojournalism during a national crisis recording and documenting the truth of a story that has affected every single one of us in some way. I’m not talking about a photographic free for all, but engagement with a small group of photographers, used to working in extremely challenging situations with the dignity of patients as paramount, observing the NHS staff in ways that don’t endanger anyone’s safety is perfectly possible and is second nature to most photographers I know. Instead of trying to control the photographic narrative in ways that spun the story to a more acceptable place, the government could have used photography as a public health warning, a way to further our understanding of this Covid pandemic by giving a more honest visual representation of the reality. Many have suffered in a myriad of ways, some merely inconvenienced, but without that photographic testament, without bearing witness to actually what was going on in our hospitals the government have missed a vital opportunity to give the nation the visual tools we need to fully grasp the horrors of this virus and why continued vigilance, lockdowns, face masks and all the other ‘new normals’ are so important to contain Covid.
I have worked in news photography for many years and I know many photojournalists are frustrated at their inability to tell the full story of Covid 2020 in the UK, possibly one of the most important stories of our lifetime, one which will define us for many years to come. In the meantime, when we see and hear an increasing drumbeat of naysayers, perhaps if they could see and hear the appalling truth of what it means to be Covid positive they may gain a better grasp of what’s being asked of them and keep that mask on.