Volunteers disinfect the Qintai Grand Theater in Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of the outbreak, April 2, 2020 (C) Aly Song/Reuters
We may be living in an image-saturated world, but the practice of photojournalism including the decisions that photo editors make and the experiences of photographers in the field rarely receive attention.
Lauren Walsh’s new book, Through the Lens: The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter aims to change that, delivering unique insights into the personal and professional challenges photojournalists faced in covering these two seismic global events. These phenomena were domestically and internationally significant. They were also deeply emotional and emotive stories to report on.
In April I caught up with Walsh via Zoom. Walsh is the director of the Gallatin Photojournalism Lab at New York University. She is also the author of the 2019 book Conversations on Conflict Photography and is currently working on a documentary film, Biography of a Photo, with VII Photo’s Ron Haviv. Walsh says that Through the Lens: The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter continues her investigation into how photojournalism is made, expanding on the work done in Conversations to feature a more diverse range of voices and approaches.
“I wanted a structure similar to the previous book because I find that listening to and learning from the practitioners on the ground is both insightful and important,” explains Walsh. “I also wanted to tackle these huge topics which were occurring globally and to have a breadth of voices including those who are not as well represented in photojournalism…I didn’t want it to be solely American voices. So, it was this dance between giving some kind of an emphasis to the exploration of the American landscape because I hadn’t done that in the previous book, but then also gesturing outwards.”
In Through the Lens, Walsh interviews photojournalists in the US, China and Peru as well as the directors of photography at the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The interviews with American photojournalists Nina Berman, Patience Zalanga and Spencer Platt draw focus to the American experience and how the pandemic and Black Lives Matter played out stateside. Juxtaposed against this American narrative are the experiences in covering COVID in Peru and China. The interviews with Rodrigo Abd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff photographer with Associated Press in Lima and Aly Song a staff photographer with Reuters in Shanghai bring new and important dimensions to the discussion.
Walsh’s interview style is engaging and complemented by her deep understanding of photojournalism. The book’s nuanced investigation unpacks some of the key ethical, technological and safety (emotional and physical) concerns facing photojournalism as it navigates yet another shift in the media landscape.
A new era of censorship
One of the topics Walsh teases out in the interviews is censorship of the media, which she says spiked globally in 2020. Censorship in the US manifested in a couple of ways. In regard to the pandemic, censorship was experienced by photojournalists who were unable to gain access to hospitals or other institutions hampering efforts to visually depict the enormity of the crisis.
It also played out in the form of self-censorship. Getty Images staff photojournalist Spencer Platt tells how his approach to photographing the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York was influenced by a desire to not further amplify the negative sentiment directed toward this group; press coverage had focused on this community’s lack of willingness to adhere to rules around large gatherings. In photographing a funeral, Platt says he was cognisant of not wanting to “shame” those present.
Hundreds of members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn attend a funeral for a rabbi who died from the coronavirus, April 5, 2020, New York City (C) Spencer Platt/Getty Images
In Peru, Abd shares how the government consistently downplayed the number of deaths to cover up the mismanagement of the pandemic. Local media only began to challenge the official line once Abd’s photographs and stories had been published outside the country. Abd’s pictures showed a very different reality, affirming the importance of photographic evidence at this time.
During the Corpus Christi mass in Lima’s main cathedral, Archbishop Carlos Castillo swings a censer, spreading incense before more than 5,000 portraits of people who died from Covid-19, Peru, June 14, 2020. At this time, more than 225,000 had been infected in the country. (C) Rodrigo Abd/AP
In Wuhan, Song recounts how he and a couple of colleagues gained entry to a COVID hospital. It wasn’t long before the authorities caught on to their presence. Twenty police along with several politicians descended on the facility. Song says, “for ten hours, we were in a doctor’s office in the Covid facility arguing with local law enforcement…They were being very aggressive. They were using tactics to intimidate us…the police formatted my SD card. The photos were wiped.”
Covering the Black Lives Matter protests also became a form of censorship with a contingent of protestors insisting that photographers hide their faces. Walsh says, “I think the easy go-to for a historical comparison with Black Lives Matter protests would be civil rights imagery. Part of what makes the civil rights era photography so powerful is seeing emotions in people’s faces, seeing expressions of anger, or hurt or joy, or whatever it is. A protest derives its power from its visibility. With Black Lives Matter there was a subset of protesters saying I’m out here to protest, but don’t take pictures of my face. That was a pretty new shift for photojournalism in the United States.”
Some photojournalists took the stance that these protests were happening in public spaces and therefore they had the legal right to take pictures, to do their job. Walsh observes that this seems a valid position when you consider that images from the protests were all over social media, very often posted by protestors themselves. But Walsh also feels it’s important we consider alternative takes on this. Others like New York-based Nina Berman chose to find new ways of photographing the protests so as not to violate the privacy of those who did not give consent.
Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City, June 3, 2020 (C) Nina Berman
“The Black Lives Matter protests are, in some regards, the culmination of a very long history in the United States of endemic racism,” says Walsh. “Nina’s view opens the idea that this is a moment for photojournalists to listen to the subjects and to take into consideration what they’re saying.”
Attacks on photojournalists increased
Safety was also a concern when covering both of these major events. Those documenting the protests had to contend with many in the crowd becoming hostile towards the media. “I was struck by some of the trauma that was being described in these interviews,” says Walsh. “I think there’s this mindset, and I’m making a broad statement here, but for the American photojournalist going to a conflict zone, of course, there are risks, and dangers, but the United States in and of itself was not considered such a dangerous space for journalists. In 2020 that really shifted and the interviews in the book reflect this.” The photograph of Platt covering protests in Oregon is a case in point.
Photographer Spencer Platt walks behind federal law enforcement officers as demonstrators protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, July 26, 2020 (C) Caitlin Ochs/Reuters
Danese Kenon, the director of video and photography at the Philadelphia Inquirer also spoke to Walsh about trauma and how the fast-paced digital newsroom isn’t geared up to deal with it. Several photographers in Kenon’s department were attacked during the riots and protests around the death of George Floyd. “Danese told me there was so much trauma, but we haven’t dedicated time to processing it,” says Walsh. “I thought that was a smart observation because you need to make time to stop and reflect and that isn’t generally built into newsroom practices.”
COVID also presented safety issues for photojournalists. Some found themselves having to wear full PPE and in Song’s case two layers of PPE when he was photographing in the COVID facility in Wuhan where there were infected cases. The pandemic was (and continues to be) an intense story that seems to go on forever as Song observes: “The whole year, I felt like I was dragged by my nose…the story was everywhere; there was no break from it.” Others, like Abd, who has covered conflicts around the world and is more attuned to photographing in foreign climes, were constantly worried he would take the virus home to his family in Lima. In the cases of Song and Abd while they were trying to keep safe from the virus, they were also aiming to stay out of the sightlines of the authorities.
It is Walsh’s hope that Through the Lens will increase “media literacy and greater understanding as to how photojournalism is made” and deliver a different way of thinking about photojournalism, perhaps a more human way. As a lecturer in media communication, I view this book as a valuable resource in discussing two of the most significant global events in recent times and the insights from both the editorial side and those in the field are invaluable. But it is also a book that acknowledges the pressures and issues that photojournalists face in telling stories that are fundamental to our ability to make educated decisions for our future. Through the Lens further validates the importance of photography as a communications device, not only as a form of documentary but also of debate and enquiry.
47 Colour and B&W photographs, 150 pages, Published by Routledge.
About the author
Alison Stieven-Taylor is a freelance journalist and media scholar. She is the publisher of the widely read blog Photojournalism Now and a lecturer in Media Communications at Monash University.