Ms. Rendón and her husband after her grandmother was taken off the ventilator. Ms. Vicari, the social worker, held a tablet so other family members could be present.
Victor J. Blue for The New Times
Tanzina: Welcome back to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Photojournalists documenting COVID-19 on the front lines, have been for many of us, our window into the suffering grief and empathy of this past year. Photographs have also played an important role in combating rampant misinformation about the coronavirus. As we continue to look at the role of imagery and communicating about this pandemic, returning to the journalistic choices behind these types of images. For that I'm joined Corinne Perkins, the North American Editor for Reuters Pictures. Corinne, welcome to The Takeaway.
Corinne: Thank you Tanzina.
Tanzina: Also with us as Victor Blue, a freelance photographer, who's been covering the coronavirus pandemic for the New York Times. Victor. Welcome.
Victor: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Victor, let's start with you. You have been covering the pandemic since the beginning. You have captured images that have been inside hospitals, and we've seen some of these photos. I have to say part of the reason why we're doing this is because I don't know if a lot of people really see what you see.
There are photos that you have here of a couple that is absolutely devastated wearing masks and crying in what appears to be an elevator. There's another photo you have of presumably a healthcare worker head to toe in PPE, walking through what appears to be a morgue. Tell us about your experience as a photographer in COVID-19.
Victor: I was very fortunate to be assigned by the New York Times to work with the amazing reporter Sheri Fink, to cover the pandemic from inside the hospitals in New York City. We photographed and reported from the ICUs and COVID wards of a handful of hospitals in the city. We were able to witness the devastation that the virus was wreaking firsthand.
Those two pictures that you mentioned, especially the one of the couple in the elevator and then the same couple over the bed side in an ICU ward. That's Eliana Rendon and her husband, Edilson she's the granddaughter of Carmen Toro who succumb to the virus in mid-April. Her and her extended family who are spread out across the United States and Colombia agreed to have us document the withdrawal of life support for her grandmother, Carmen Toro at North Shore Hospital in Queens.
The other image that you were referring to is of a guy named Alexis who was a patient transport worker at the Brooklyn Hospital Center. That's a picture of one inside one of the morgue trucks that had become ubiquitous in the city during the pandemic that were parked outside the hospitals to deal with the overflow of corpses who were dying inside the hospitals.
Tanzina: Victor, have readers responded to your images?
Victor: Yes, certainly they have. It's been gratifying to see the response from readers of the newspaper. We've had reader comments and emails to me and on the story on the website. As well folks who that maybe didn't believe so much or who to whom the devastation of the pandemic of COVID-19 had been remote. Seeing the pain and the sacrifice of individual families of people with names, we saw their faces, their home life changed. I think that the remose that people felt from what was happening
Tanzina: Corrine, there was a Reuters photograph that similarly captured the attention of many of us. It was of a man being comforted by a doctor wearing full PPE presumably in his last moments. As a photo editor, Corinne, how do you make decisions about which photos run during this time?
Corinne: I think it's about making sure that we have a variety of images that hit people and present the visual evidence of what's happening so that there is that undeniability of what's going on. We wanted to really make sure that things were as relatable as possible. Looking for those very human moments of connections. The embraces they're looking through the windows at your loved ones, the last moments, the last rights and things like that as well.
We really tried to show a variety of hospitals. We weren't able to get into as many as of the New York hospitals, so we had to really look at different ways of presenting what was going on in New York in a different way. We were looking at those mobile morgues that Victor mentioned. The funeral homes that were really inundated with bodies in Harlem. The drone images of Hart Island, there was mass burials during the peak of the crisis in New York.
Then looking at different hospitals across the country. Rural Kansas to downtown Houston, to the South Side of Chicago. Making sure that we have at a timeline of where the virus is hitting the worst. That we're presenting those moments to readers and making sure that they're aware of what's going on.
Tanzina: Corrine, Reuters photographs can appear in many publications across the world. Do you ever look at the photographs that you receive and think this may be too much?
Corinne: With this one, our tolerance for what has been too much has grown and I think as there's still being people denying the virus. We were talking with one of the doctors in Houston who has afforded us a lot of access to his hospital down there. Asked him what is going to turn the views of the people who are still denying it? He said, it, we need to get more graphic images out there of what's happening in the last moments of people's lives before they die from this virus.
The last time we went in, that's what we presented the CPR on a patient and his body being put into a body bag and those really more graphic, final moments. Whereas at the beginning of the pandemic, we probably wouldn't have shown those ones. Although we did have pictures of inside the refrigerated trucks and things like that.
Tanzina: Victor, there are some people who say we shouldn't have images of people who are dying out of respect for their families. What do you think about that?
Victor: I feel that along with many aspects of our society and of our culture, that were peeled back or laid bare, or we were forced to deal with during the pandemic. I think that this country's or our society’s complicated and sometimes dysfunctional relationship with death was one of those things. I think it's interesting that you hear some calls for less graphic imagery. I feel like those calls are oftentimes politicized.
I don't personally believe that there's any dignity afforded to someone who has died because of circumstances outside their control. Because of political decisions by our leaders, not just at the federal level, but as well as our local and state level elected officials. Those folks made decisions that prolonged or increase the suffering of people. For us not to see images of the suffering that those decisions caused, it does a disservice to the victims of this disease I believe. I don't believe that showing them in their most difficult moments somehow diminishes their dignity in any way.
I think that as Corinne said talking with a doctor in Houston. That these kinds of images are the things that give people the information they need to understand what's happening to their communities, to their country. To make the decisions they need to make politically. How they pull that lever, if they wear a mask or not, if they travel for Thanksgiving or Christmas, how they spend their money every day. without these kinds of pictures that without documenting the severity of the pandemic, folks don't have the information they need to make the decisions they have to make every day.
Tanzina: Victor, a lot of the difficult images I think that Americans, you mentioned a really interesting point about Americans relationship with understanding death. I think a lot of the images that we see in the news about death are often not in the United States, mass deaths in particular. Victor you've covered the conflict and other difficult photographic moments. How does this one square with you in this moment, covering the coronavirus pandemic and massive amounts of death in the United States specifically?
Victor: I think that it's true. I think this country has a double standard at what it's willing to look at. I don't know if that's specific to the United States or to any country, but it's much harder to look in your own backyard. It's much harder to see death and suffering when you can't look at it as someone else or another, that's removed from you.
These are our communities, and it's hard to face up to the pain of what our communities are suffering, there's no question about it. For me, covering the pandemic in many ways it was like going through the looking glass in my everyday life. I was coming home, trying to stay safe, trying to keep my loved ones safe, like everyone else. Then multiple times a week, I would enter the ICU wards and see what was happening inside them and see how people were suffering and I felt compelled to get the message out.
Sheri Fink and I and our editors in New York Times work hard to get those stories out but the strangest thing was doing it in my own community. I'm used to getting on an airplane and flying somewhere, a culture that I'm not a part of that I'm not particularly conversant in. Trying to interpret it and trying to document it as honestly and accurately as possible. Now, it was happening in my own city and places I walked by every day so it definitely had a, through the looking glass aspect to it. I also tried to not adhere to that double standard.
I tried to show what was happening in my own community and country, the same way that I would in any other place in the world and not pull my punches because I was afraid that it would upset people. If I'm not willing to do that in another country and about another culture, I should haven't been willing to do it here and I was willing to do it.
Tanzina: Corrine Perkins is a North American editor for Reuters Picture. Victor Blue is a freelance photographer who's been covering the coronavirus pandemic for the New York Times. Thanks to you both.
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