Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

‘You are not alone’: Photojournalists share tips from the coronavirus frontlines

Melissa Lyttle, Independent visual journalist, [email protected]

The calls and emails cancelling jobs started coming about a week and a half ago. I’m trying not to think about all the money lost, but I know exactly how much it is — and it hurts.

First there was an XFL game that wasn’t, after the league suspended all games. Then, a potential gig for a professional soccer team fell through. They’d just come back with a final number. A really nice final number. And then their league suspended games, too.

And then came the day last week that broke me. I had to cancel three round-trip flights, multiple hotel rooms and rental cars, and tried not to cry as three weeks of work shooting 360-video on university campuses vanished instantly. 

I keep telling friends who ask that I’m doing OK. I’m really trying not to complain. I’m trying to use this time to read more and binge watch shows and movies I’m behind on. I’m trying to reconnect with old friends via FaceTime or text just to say hi and check up on them.

A couple of friends and I even had a Google hangout brunch the other day where we toasted the screens with our respective mimosas.

Toasting my friends and fellow photogs Steve Johnson (glasses) and Ryan M. Jones, as we practice self-isolation, social-distancing, and trying to stay sane all in one shot. (Screenshot by Melissa Lyttle, bottom right)

I’ve reminded myself that downtime is good and necessary for creativity and researching more ideas. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a support system and an incredible wife (who’s a staff reporter at a large metropolitan newspaper) who, while working remotely from our dining room table, is still very much working. I have savings (I’m a firm believer in having an 8-month emergency fund!), and while I hate to tap into it, that’s what it’s there for.

But I’m scared for other freelancers. My social media feeds are filled with posts from photographers worried about not making rent and others fearful of spiraling into depression. Others question covering Coronavirus at all since they don’t have health insurance or worry about possibly getting other people sick. Their fears are very real. 

And I’m scared for staffers, too. Newsrooms are not disaster preparedness centers. They might have one drawer of protective gear like gloves and hand wipes, but they don’t have a magical months-long stockpile for their entire staff.

I also worry about journalism as a profession and what a recession could do to an industry hollowed out by layoffs, buyouts and shuttered publications — much of which took place while the economy was good. The risks and concerns we’re all facing are very real.

I’m glad to see some resources popping up online for folks (the NPPA is keeping a list here). But also, check up on your friends and colleagues, call your parents, drop a note off to an elderly neighbor asking if you can get them anything when you run to the store this weekend. Text a friend with a funny memory. Ask people to join you online for a coffee date. Ask how you can help (if you’re in a position to).

As a former president of the National Press Photographers Association, founder of APhotoADay, member of Women Photograph, and a fairly prolific Tweeter, I’ve always embraced my role as a connector. So, I reached out to my network, looking for a diverse array of voices to talk about being a visual journalist in the time of the coronavirus. I talked to photographers and videographers, staffers and freelancers, educators and editors about how they’re dealing with this: personally, professionally, practically.

I asked some specifically to tell me stories of how this compares to other huge crises and asked others for what advice they may have since they’ve covered conflicts and other heavy, emotionally taxing things before. The responses I got back are telling and frightening. As most point out, we don’t have a choice. If we want to do our jobs, if we want to continue to make money and continue making pictures we have to be out there. 

Talking to people was therapeutic — for them and me. If there’s anything good to come of this, it’s the reminder that we’re not alone. 

Exposed in the field

“Every day feels a little bit like hanging on to the roof of a swerving car.”

Lindsey Wasson, independent visual journalist based in Seattle, Wash.

“Photographers are being sent out to any and all places to photograph. We have not been offered masks or gloves. In my position, I don’t have benefits and won’t get paid if I stop working and I’m immunocompromised. Culture is to do what you’re told without asking questions because editors are too busy.”

— Anonymous photo intern at a newspaper in a large metropolitan city

“I’m trying to keep the COVID-19 news and what we do as journalists in perspective.

“I covered the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and the I35W bridge collapse in the Twin Cities. With this experience I know we’re in for a long haul with the virus coverage. I’m advising friends and journalists to take care of themselves mentally. Especially today with the amount of updates you can get on social media, people can get overwhelmed. You have to take a break from it. You have to get your rest, eat right, cut down on the booze, be present with your family and friends, and do something you love. It’s advice we should all take.” 

—Brett Akagi, KCTV News Operations Manager, Kansas City, Mo.

“I never worry about anything where I cannot affect the outcome. I can assess risk though, so what I can do is make my crew and my family as safe and prepared as humanly possible. Everything else is out of my control.

“For me as the regional photo editor of the South, a big part of my job right now is talking to photographers and assessing their needs. And it’s a lot of real practical stuff we’re telling them, like wiping your gear with isopropyl alcohol. Company wide, worldwide, managers are just reaching out and trying to communicate effectively.

“We’ve been having town halls via Zoom and people from around the world are hearing best practices for covering something of this magnitude. Everyone is paying attention to what the CDC and WHO has to say. And, so we just talk about best practices with our crews and reinforce the common sense aspects of it all.

“I tell my photographers you can still nice make pictures with a 400mm lens, maybe now is not when you need to be in there with a wide angle lens.

“Photographers generally are already remote employees as is, we don’t need them in the office, so we’re good there. And we’re just trying to support them any way we can. The biggest asks from my crew so far has been for N95 masks and surgical gloves and isopropyl alcohol, so I’m driving around looking for that and sending it directly to their houses or finding some other way to get it to them.

“I was in a large box store last week and I’ve never seen this level of hysteria and panic before. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen anything like this in the United States. It’s unprecedented, from my perspective.”

—Mike Stewart, Associated Press, U.S. Regional Photo Editor/South

“I’m cleaning my camera gear and laptop each night with isopropyl alcohol (if I can find it) and limiting the gear I use. I’m still getting captions but standing further away from people than usual. Our office is closed and I hope not to work from the office until this passes, which I expect to be at least 8 weeks. I’m also changing clothes and washing them at the end of each shoot day. No mask or gloves as of yet, but lots of handwashing. (Also have wipes to wipe down steering wheel/door handles and am using alcohol on my phone 2x a day – before I go out and when I get back.) I haven’t resorted to only long glass yet but I am working less in people’s faces than before. I think getting context/captions is so important to keep humanizing this, and it can be done from a safe distance if the person has no symptoms. At least I hope so.”

Jacquelyn Martin, AP Staff photographer based in DC

“After a few of our journalists were in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, at a journalism conference in New Orleans, the Houston Chronicle sent their non-visual journalists to work from home. But like all  other news organizations, the photography team is out in the field.

“For the most part, we are learning as we go about how to cover a story of such magnitude during a time in which visual storytelling is being used in ways it was not during other epidemics throughout history.

“We have worked so hard to make sure that we tell stories that show intimacy and humanity, but now getting too close and intimate with our subjects could mean that we get sick and jeopardize the ability of our organization to keep our community informed. 

“The Houston Chronicle photo department is keeping close communication among ourselves to be … well-coordinated and learn best practices from each other. We are learning to make sure we call certain subjects ahead of our visit, especially high-risk ones to make sure we are all comfortable with the setting in which the portraits or photos will be made. We are considering using telephoto lenses more often, having zero physical contact with the subjects, we are cleaning our photography gear, computer keyboard, and cellphones after work. I bought a giant bottle of white vinegar to help clean my things because Clorox and other detergents are hard to find.

“On a personal level, well, I am moving to the guest room of our house to make sure I do everything in my power to not contaminate my partner with whatever I could bring home from the street. My partner suffers from lupus, a condition in which the immune system attacks its own tissues. Needless to say, I am deeply concerned, that’s a fact I cannot omit. I worked about 13 hours yesterday, but it has NOT been like that every day because we have shared the responsibilities among the photo staff.”

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle Staff Photographer

“Right now, I am forcing myself to take it one day, one assignment, one moment at a time. It’s like a hurricane, if I think about all the what ifs I can’t focus on the current reality. If I want to do the best job covering this, I have to stay grounded.

“I’m trying to be careful and smart about what assignments I take. And when I’ve been approached to cover the coronavirus, all the editors have been very low pressure and understanding if I want or need to say no.” 

— Eve Edelheit, independent visual journalist based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“The thing that’s keeping me up at night is: What if I get somebody sick? What if I don’t have symptoms but am contagious and pass this along to someone who has invited me in to make their portrait? I’m just trying to behave as if I am and stay as far away as possible. My audio sucks because I didn’t want someone touching something I’ve handled and didn’t use a lav, so be it. Small price to pay.”

Adam Vogler, visual journalist at the Kansas City Business Journal

“’I’m a photojournalist and have been told basically this is my job. I have never backed down from an assignment of any kind. This I’m terrified of. I have 2 children, and I’d like them to have me around. I love my job but I’m given no choice. Honestly, I’m scared to death. I was sick as a child and on a respirator for 6 months. My doctor says I’m at no greater risk than anyone else to get the virus but if I do get it, my lung function could cause a problem.

“I also live in an area where there is no hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes left. A firefighter gave me a small hand sanitizer but that’s it for protection. I’ve been here for 16 years, and I’ve covered crazy stuff as we all have and this is the first issue I’ve had.”

—Anonymous staff photographer at a small newspaper in the Mid Atlantic

“I’m constantly on the lookout for situations, iconic images, moments and portraits that illustrate this mess. I transmit to my agency, Zuma press, in hopes that they get licensed. The market is incredibly saturated with panic-themed images, so I try to find ‘rays of sunlight’ stories that are uplifting and positive. That raises my spirits, which have been depressed with all the cancellations I’ve had. Finding good things to photograph ultimately helps me stay positive.”

—Robin Rayne, independent visual journalist based near Atlanta, Ga.

“I work as a food photographer so day-by-day I’m watching my entire industry be destroyed. But as terrifying as it is to not know if my livelihood will be okay again, it’s far worse to watch the imminent destruction of my friends and clients – chefs, bartenders, waiters. I feel sick pretty much all the time.”

Libby Volgyes, independent photographer in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Working remotely

“Ever since we’ve been told to work from home I’ve been out in the community every shift. Public spaces, businesses, homes, homeless camps – I’m there. Working from home in the traditional sense doesn’t apply to me. It feels slightly overwhelming because there is breaking news it seems every hour. We are all adjusting to not having a newsroom to yell across the room to each other and come together in person for collaboration. That’s been the biggest challenge is making sure things don’t fall through the cracks. We are learning to work together better, even when we have to be apart. 

“What am I being told about safety etc? I have had to supply my own gloves and masks for work which has been frustrating considering these things have been hard to come by. I do worry I’m at a higher risk of getting the virus because I am out in the community more.

“I’ve read a lot of things, of course, on how to stay safe and have made my own routine before/after assignments: Hand sanitizer in the cup holder, mask hangs from the mirror and Clorox wipes in the side doors. I wipe down gear, me, car interior, phone before and after assignments. Wash hands and shower when I get home. Wash clothes from that day. Did I mention washing my hands?

“I work night shift so I make sure I get a good workout in the morning at the park nearby and eat well. Talk to my family, friends often and watch/read things that are light and make me laugh. Micheladas and homemade pizzas baby! 

“To be honest, I’ve been treating this like a hurricane – in the sense to have a go-bag, cash, gas and enough supplies to see this through. 

“This virus and its impacts aren’t slowing down so I feel pressure to not slow down either. If people are suffering and news is happening I should be working and making sure those stories don’t fall through the cracks. But I’m realizing the best kind of journalist is a healthy journalist so…I’m learning to slow down.”

Brontë Wittpenn, staff visual journalist at the Austin American-Statesman

“I work for an NBC Owned-and-Operated station out of San Diego. As of Monday, I have been working remotely, which, fortunately for me, I’m well equipped to do. I’m an MMJ and have everything I need to still tell a visual story. The biggest difference is getting those interviews. I’m adhering to social distancing and reducing my human contact.

“I’m trying to get creative with my Facetime interviews. I screen-record my interviews on my phone while shooting the phone with my news camera. I have the phone on a tripod, positioned in front of my computer screen that has an image relating to the story (usually a coronavirus microscopic image). That gives it a little more depth and substance.

“I have been in the field and anyone who knows me knows I hate stick mics. So I clean my lavalier microphone, hand it to my subject to put on themselves, and then I immediately clean it when they hand it back to me.

“Personally, this sucks. I love my coworkers and I love people. Not seeing my boss and deskmates on a daily basis is frustrating. I like to work on stories alone but those stories are part of a bigger newscast with many moving parts. I miss being in that machine. I feel out of touch right now. I still get dressed for work and look for things to go shoot. I can’t wait for this to end.”

—Joe Little, MMJ & Director of Storytelling at NBC 7 San Diego

Finding untold stories

“In terms of the coronavirus, I have not seen first hand the impact, but what is abundantly clear is that this disease, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or photographed, will require a nationwide and ultimately global response. In many ways, we are now being tested, whether it be on the family, community, state or national levels. It’s never been more important to find sources of information to trust and to have reliable channels of information and communication.

“I am concerned about the working poor, the isolated and depressed, our elders and those already struggling with physical illness. As our healthcare systems are potentially overwhelmed and we necessarily become more isolated from one another, we must do what we can to reach out to people we know who fall into any of the categories I’ve mentioned.

“I, for one, have already started to photograph a food bank in my small town in New Jersey. I am laying the groundwork for documenting the impact of this virus from a more positive and active angle, how are we rallying to help one another in an extraordinary time of need? I have also signed up to volunteer for this food bank, knowing that in time I might have to prioritize community service over documentation, or try to do both!

“The impact of this pandemic on freelancers, particularly photojournalists, will be sharp, deep and long lasting. The loss of work, the inability to travel or move around, the lack of opportunity will be extreme. We have to support one another through online chats, hangouts or any other way to make sure nobody is left isolated and alone.

“In terms of how we, as visual artists and communicators, can contribute to this moment and use the forced situation to benefit ourselves, I believe this is the moment to look locally, or even within your own home, to find and tell visual stories that related to this phenomena.

“We must find levity, as there will surely be silver linings. We must take advantage of the extra time we have to exercise, read, relax, sleep more, be with our loved ones, ruminate, day dream, eat well and generally take a deep breathe and live in the moment.

“As journalists, we must brace ourselves for an event of extreme proportions, but also be prepared for things to calm down faster and with less damage than the worst estimates are gauging. It’s a weird time. Don’t despair, talk to people, try to laugh and find ways to accept our new reality and make the best of it.”

Ed Kashi, VII photographer and co-founder of Talking Eyes Media 

Worth the cost?

“I have decided it’s not worth the risk and I am not working for the next two weeks. I can do that because I have paid off my student loans and have savings. But, I will say that some of the requests I’ve gotten are laughable. The rates are not reflective of how dangerous this could be for people. We need hazard pay. I’m not working for $450 in a situation that could compromise me or my family’s health. And it pisses me off that other people are put in that position! Also PAY F*CKING INVOICES ON TIME. It’s so precarious for us right now and people who have the power need to protect us in any way they can! Freelancers are not disposable.”

Bethany Mollenkof, independent photographer/filmmaker based in LA

Cancelled: When the money stops

“I have lost all clients through mid April, probably longer. It happened to be a busy month that was going to provide revenue for the next several months. If my partner didn’t still have his job, I’d be in a terrible situation. I feel fortunate, but more vulnerable than ever. It makes me question my career choice, which I’ve always known has very little stability.”

Elisa Ferrari, independent photographer based in LA

“The reality is things have turned real bad real fast. Months of work has vanished in an instant and when things return to normal it will take months for clients to get back to the point of hiring us, if that business even is open after this. I’m planning on not having income for at least 6 months and it’s terrifying. Luckily I have some retainer contracts that should help. But my savings will be decimated when this is over.” 

Craig Mitchelldyer, Portland, Oregon

“All of my photo assignments have evaporated. I had two final ‘hold out’ clients who were kind of waiting it out to see what happened, and they have both been called off as of the past two days. I’ve two freelance reporting gigs and they are the only things keeping me afloat right now.”

Lauren Crothers, Freelance Correspondent-Photojournalist based in New York City

“My reality is that in my market, with the exception of one recent NYTimes story, I don’t expect to work for at least the next three months. Chattanooga is as closed for business as most of the U.S., halting my commercial work, and I expect that we’ll be eclipsed by larger cities in the national news conversation.

“I have no local/regional editorial clients because their rates are terrible.

“I will be OK, because my partner works and I have an emergency fund, but all momentum I had built at the beginning of my first full year as a freelancer is gone.”

Doug Strickland, independent visual journalist based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“One minute freelancing was going very well as I was covering 18 straight days of spring training and then overnight it’s all gone. The entire sports world is gone. I’m still a little numb. Who knows how or if it will come back. Taking things a day at a time.”

Jim Rassol, independent visual journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I specialize in documenting life events like bar mitzvahs. Today, two were postponed from April to June/July. May events are also in doubt. Thank heavens the wine aisle is still well stocked.”

Joan Cusick, independent visual journalist based in Sacramento, Calif.

Teaching remotely

“Ohio University is closed. The photojournalism students I have in one of my classes are freshmen in their first photojournalism class. Luckily it is the middle of the semester and we have covered the basics of photojournalism. They understand content, visual creativity, and the law. 

“The last four assignments have changed because they cannot go out, find stories, and interact with the public. I am being very careful not to even suggest they leave their homes. The students cannot feel like they will get a better grade by going out into the public to get a better photo. I know photojournalists take chances all the time, but these students have their whole lives to practice those skills. Now is not the time to do it. They were told to photograph their families or roommates. There are moments, interactions and relationships for them to photograph in their family or friends’ everyday activities. See the extraordinary in the ordinary. Years from now they will have a little record of what was happening around them during the pandemic of 2020.“

 —Marcy Nighswander, Professor at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication

“There’s a surreal quality to preparing classes, in  isolation, for students who have suddenly been scattered to the four winds and across at least three continents. Some will have comfortable places to live and study. Many will not. They’ll be in difficult circumstances. All will be as distracted as I am by the pandemic — which is to say very distracted. Online teaching begins tomorrow — the 19th — and I’m still not sure precisely what we’ll be reading and looking at and talking about. I don’t know what students will be capable of doing both practically and psychologically. I’ve made a lot of revisions to my syllabi, but I know that I’ll have to play it by ear. I’m being open with students about my own quandaries about coursework and my own anxieties about the pandemic. I want them to know that salvaging the semester won’t be easy for many of them, but that it’s my job to help them do it. I’ll do everything I can to make sure they do.”

—John Edwin Mason, Professor at the University of Virginia

‘A hard crisis to shoot’

“The difference between COVID and Fukushima and other crisis zones – that would make an interesting essay. The main difference for me is my family is here. Which means I am juggling work and kids, and thinking about contagion. (When I went to work in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine my family came, but they lived separately from me in western Ukraine.)

“The main society difference is the locus of the threat. In Fukushima the danger in the air soon passed, and the contamination was in the soil, the plants, the groundwater. So people had to avoid the outside world. Although people felt isolated due to evacuations there was no reason to avoid contact with others. Here it is the opposite situation.

“I find having worked in several crisis locations, I see a pattern I’ve seen before: the crisis feels fairly mild in many locations, and people there have trouble wrapping their minds around it, but you cross an invisible line into an affected area and in places that are harder hit it is life-changing. I guess that is always the case in any disaster from tornado to war and everything in between, but it feels disorienting and bizarre.

“From a personal perspective, it is strange how much people are panicking. Craziness at the supermarket. For some of us — journalists, medics, veterans, people with anxiety disorders — this does not seem like a big deal. Sure there is a threat but for most people there is a clear and easy solution – stay home. Unlike Fukushima or Chernobyl or Donetsk or Kosovo where death or destruction can come out of the sky at any moment.

“From a professional perspective, this is a hard crisis to shoot. Not a lot to see.”

Michael Forster Rothbart, professor at SUNY Oneonto and freelancer in upstate NY

Create a self-care plan

“It is likely these coming weeks and months will be enormously stressful and painful. Covering traumatic events is never easy and I urge you all to take a moment to think about your mental health ahead of it. I’ve spent a lot of time over these years covering awful situations and admittedly was unprepared for how to mentally handle them in the beginning. 

“I’ve learned a lot along the way through resources like the DART Center, which has a trove of free info on their site. There’s no easy solution for what you may encounter, but these are some techniques I’ve found rather useful. A straightforward takeaway is R.A.F.T. – Rest (and breathe, reflect, replenish), Access (a mentor or buddy to talk out your experiences), Focus (on your purpose, meaning, and professional skills), and Take (in whole foods, water, sleep, and exercise). Do a self-check and think about each of these parts. Some might work better than others for you but together they can form a powerful system. 

“Create a self-care plan before traumatic events take place and practice it.

  • Maybe wake up every morning and journal or spend a few minutes meditating.
  • Exercise is proven to help people through stressful situations and even a short walk or stretch can ease tension. I’ve personally found activities like yoga and hiking to be profoundly healing.
  • Make a log of your triggers and prepare for how to handle/limit them.
  • If you find yourself overwhelmed practice grounding techniques or maybe listen to music.
  • Create a peer support network and talk about what you’re going through.

“Recognize warning signs in yourself – has your behavior changed, are you lashing out or taking unnecessary risks? Ask those around you if you’re acting differently. Take breaks when you can and try to limit your exposure. Cut out vices like drugs and alcohol whenever possible.

“Find things that bring you joy and remind you of how beautiful this world can be. Stay safe, wash your hands, and watch out for each other. 

“You are not alone.” 

Cengiz Yar, independent visual journalist based in El Paso, Texas

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