Pandemic, photography, and psychological distance

March 20, 2020
Nurses at a drive-up coronavirus testing station set up by the University of Washington Medical Center sanitize their hands after taking a sample from a person in a car on Friday, March 13, 2020, in Seattle. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Decisions made by photojournalists and their editors define traumatic events in the cultural consciousness. Throughout coverage of COVID-19, many news outlets have published photographs that reiterate racist tropes, suggest a false gap between “East” and “West,” and fail to engage a fuller range of human efforts to respond to a pandemic. 

CJR spoke with Fred Ritchin, Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography (ICP) School and a former professor of Photography and Imaging at New York University specializing in visual media and human rights, who shared his opinions about early photographic coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way journalism illustrates trauma. Ritchin’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.


PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE PRESS tends to be reactive rather than proactive—graphically depicting catastrophes rather than illuminating strategies that may diminish or even prevent the worst from happening. Photojournalism has also often been used to highlight the “other” as victimized, less well off than we are. 

With the coronavirus, it was at first the Chinese wearing masks, who became emblematic of the idea that bad things happen to other people. That was very short-sighted. There’s an understandable but problematic impulse to try and show that others have it worse than we do, that we are somehow in a protected space. It’s a psychological defense, but it’s not what’s called for in journalism.

Much of the photography that we see is not actually “coverage” but facile “signifiers.” Part of the problem is a shortsightedness in the utilization of photography: rather than use it to explore what is going on, just pick a signifier, a white mask, and stick it everywhere. Rather than ask questions of events, the images often just show a fragment of what’s there without putting it in context. If you’re reading a major news organization on your cell phone, you have this postage stamp-sized image. It looks like a photograph, but basically it’s only a button that is there to be pushed to get the potential reader to the article. For that, the easiest thing is a simple signifier—an alarming image of a white mask that gets the reader to click to the next screen rather than reflect. 

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When I think of the white masks, I think of orange jumpsuits issued to detainees at Guantanamo. Once you saw the orange jumpsuits, the people wearing them are dehumanized, thought of as guilty, although most were later released. The orange jumpsuit signified that They’re different from us, there is an enemy out there. I think the white masks at first constituted a shorthand that said it’s about the “other,” not us. It was a visceral defense against the threat of contagion that crumbled as the pandemic took hold. Now it’s no longer just the other, it’s us, but very little of the imagery we have seen told us how those first affected were able to cope with it, to contain it.  

When I worked in print journalism, one would think, Oh, I can show a picture of someone far away in a difficult situation without revictimizing them because they would never see the newspaper. With the Web, that stopped. You understood that there is no seal between you and the rest of the world.

I was a curator of a show on Iraqi civilian photography made a year after the US invasion. The most important image for me was the one of somebody in Iraq going to the dentist, because it’s not about bombs exploding. The visual take-away from the Iraq war, like so many other conflicts elsewhere, was that there were all these crazy people just killing each other all the time. Once you see people go to the dentist, they’re more like us. And then it’s terrifying because it could happen to us as well. It’s not only them anymore.

When I worked in print journalism, one would think, Oh, I can show a picture of someone far away in a difficult situation without revictimizing them because they would never see the newspaper. With the Web, that stopped. You understood that there is no seal between you and the rest of the world. The world may see what you publish. Being a war photographer is different when the combatants are checking out your pictures the next day and you’re embedded with them. You may photograph differently. You may take their feelings into account in different ways. 

At PixelPress, an online publication that I directed, we put a photograph of somebody jumping from the World Trade Center on our home page right after the September 11 attacks. And I immediately got reactions from people I knew who basically said they would never talk to me again if I didn’t take it down. 

In this photograph, you could not identify the person. So it wasn’t that we were revictimizing that specific individual’s family or friends. But I took the photo down because people were really upset. You couldn’t publish those pictures, because that was us, not someone else. 

With COVID-19, initial photos depicted the danger as being far away, as opposed to raising questions of what’s going on among us. It’s been, understandably, somewhat of a stunned reaction worldwide—not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what questions to ask, and not wanting to add to the panic. 

One of the most interesting coronavirus-related images I saw is one of China since the people stopped going to work. The pollution has decreased enormously, because they’re not doing what they normally do. I learned something about what’s going on, and even felt a small bit of hope that we might use some of these images to motivate ourselves to respond more effectively to climate change. 

Photographs rarely become icons now, as they did with “Earthrise,” and during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. It’s not top-down anymore; with social media, it’s much more horizontal. Its fuel is constant replenishment of stuff that could become viral. And what often works best are things that cause immediate visceral reactions, such as hate, fear, anger. 

You could argue that social media as it functions now, and online media in general, is very well-made for the panicky side of an outbreak, and less well-made for the compassionate side. The image of the neighbor helping someone get to the hospital or bringing food to someone in quarantine isn’t the first to go viral. I think online media is often better at propagating the malignancies as opposed to the underlying issues at play, the strategies for healing and understanding.

It is difficult to have nuanced discussions in the newsroom when people are under so much pressure to produce on a never-ending news cycle. Often, people picking the pictures don’t have time to reflect on these complexities, or they must plug imagery into a predetermined template that limits their choices.

Editors are really undervalued; they’re the people who should be asking these questions. Didn’t we run another mask picture yesterday and the day before and the day before that? Can we do something different? In some publications there are very few photo editors now, a result in part of the financial squeeze in journalism, and very little money to make long-term assignments.

What are the alternatives? What else can you do? Should you do portraits of 28 people who survived the coronavirus? Couldn’t that be reassuring to people, and isn’t it reflective of the actual situation in which the large majority of people do survive their illness? It takes effort to do that. It’s a lot simpler to pick up the white mask picture than to find 28 people and do 28 portraits and interviews. 

I would love to see photographs showing the faces of the nurses, the technicians, the people working long shifts, the cleaners, the people who are putting their lives at risk for the rest of us. It can be upsetting to think of being taken care of by a space-suited person—certainly for kids, as well as for many adults. I would like to see who these people are, why they do what they do, in part so that we can feel empathy for them, and gratitude. One photograph I saw online in the New Yorker did just that: a doctor, the only one in Clay County, Georgia, where forty percent of the population is under the poverty line, is depicted sitting on a metal folding chair as she talks with the nurse in their small clinic. It speaks of concern, and responsibility.

A friend of mine just got out of quarantine the other morning. I’d love for someone to do a portrait of her to say, Look, she’s fine, she’s happy to be out and about again. It’s actually so reflexive, this Let’s find the worst and publicize it. Somehow, showing the best in people nowadays is frequently viewed as naïve.

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.