“The photojournalist is a storyteller and he is on the front lines, showing us what is happening in the world,” the photography critic once said. Simonetta Persichetti. Photography, through a non-textual language, can evoke memory, it can be a personification of the nature of questioning ideas, the replication of a kind of vague state that is outside even language. At this moment, through the promotion of direct feelings of identification, empathy or disapproval, it can circumvent the national barriers that build, for each country, a very particular response to prevent and combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through the interweaving of layers of meaning, the images convey universal themes such as death, life, love and fear, even if, for the moment, they are always accompanied by a suspended theme that is the virus. This, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida teaches, is by definition the strange, the other, the foreigner. A barrier is created between a “us” – uncontaminated – and a “them” – those who are prone to contracting the virus. In this scenario, good photojournalism tries to eliminate this symbolic and discursive barrier through records that create a connection with those who observe and contemplate the images. And even if they do not have the function of a document – ​​as the French documentarian Claude Lanzmann would say: if you feel the need for proof, for example, photographic, it is because you are already in the negationist side – these records help to remove the issue from a particular dimension and take it to a public dimension, contributing to the information and even alleviating a feeling of panic.

Bearing these considerations in mind – as well as the impossibility of presenting a “face of the virus” – the arte!brasileiros produced a selection of notable photojournalistic works. These are records from Peru – with Rodrigo Abd -, from Iran – with Newsha Tavakolian and Arash Khamooshi, from France – with Jean Gaumy – and from our country – with Victor Moriyama, Hélio Campos Mello and Cristina de Middel.

Human presence and the phantom barrier

“We photographers must have an emotional closeness to the story we are portraying in these dramatic moments. And our camera must be the tool to reduce these distances that arise from the pandemic. Photos unite us as professionals with people, and the products of this union, which are photographs, unite readers with the lives of thousands of people photographed”, says Rodrigo Abd.

But how to have proximity when it is not possible to physically get close to the respective portrayed? Cristina de Middel says that any form of interaction has become much more difficult due to a “floating idea” of mistrust. In her case, the language barrier doubled the effort – Middel is Spanish but lives in Itacaré, in the Northeast of Brazil, with her husband Bruno Morais -, “I realized very quickly that it would be difficult for me to work in Itacaré, because I look like a gringa and I don't speak proper Portuguese so people were a bit rude and nobody wanted to be photographed or even talk to me”. One of her strategies for not thinking about how frustrating it is not being able to travel and explore the country like a photographer is to reflect in her work on the situation we are experiencing without leaving her home, her neighborhood or her city. Not only your safety, but that of other people is something challenging in this creative process.

Brazilian Victor Moriyama agrees, noting that “no matter how careful we are, there is always a concern, a fear of contracting the virus, of contaminating other people, this is extremely worrying: you being a silent transmitter”. For him, the risk of contagion makes photographing in the midst of the pandemic pose a danger analogous to covering a conflict, although his commitment to journalism keeps him motivated to continue. Moriyama joined the initiative Covid Latam, created by photographer Sebastian Gil Miranda, which brings together 18 photographers from 13 countries in Latin America with the aim of providing broader and more concrete coverage, as well as supporting the work of these professionals.

Covering Covid in Iran, Arash Khamooshi reflects on the historical value of photodocumentation of the crisis: “The photos we took during the pandemic to capture these moments will definitely have greater value in the future. The modern world has not experienced anything like this. Perhaps we can compare it to the 1918 flu pandemic, but we are experiencing something different.” He reports that he had to adapt to all safety measures: mask and gloves at all times. But he reveals that if he had to get closer to get a more authentic portrait he would do what was necessary. “Perhaps that is what generates empathy, not only with the person portrayed, but also with those who see the photograph”.

Such closeness is not just physical. In his works published in this article, Rodrigo Abd deals with the theme of death, both in his records in the Nueva Esperanza and El Angel cemeteries and in the mass said by Archbishop Carlos Castillo. When portraying delicate subjects like this, he appreciates: “Always try to get close to them [those portrayed] before you start shooting”. Abd confesses that this helped him to be welcome to photograph a moment of great pain that is a funeral. “In the Nueva Esperanza cemetery, I talked a lot with the relatives of the fatal victims of Covid-19. It is essential for me to explain to people the importance of photography in creating a historical memory about what happens to us as a society. This opens doors, the relatives understood very well, for example.”

Although they have different approaches, these photographers share a characteristic that is to avoid using shock as a narrative resource. In doing so they deny saying what we should feel and allow us to feel things we don't quite understand, as cultural theorist Susie Linfield has claimed. “Sometimes I have to be straight with my audience through my images to alert them” says Khamooshi, adding: “I don't think it takes a shocking image to show that. In general, the presence of people in my photos is very decisive”. This choice, for Abd, makes the reading of the images by the observer enriched, because it forces us to think about the record, unlike the merely descriptive images that “invite a quick and passive consumption”.

See the photos below:

Photo: Jean Gaumy, Fécamp, France. March 22, 2020.

Our daughter Marie and her children were confined, infected with the virus for 12 days. Twelve difficult days. Marie became feverish and sleep deprived, she bravely took on her role while we grandparents could only get close to their window. We came as quickly as possible, but it wasn't to enter their house. That day, we were surprised to find them playing the cello. They were finally getting better.

Photo: Rodrigo Abd. Nueva Esperanza Cemetery, Lima, Peru. May 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

A street photographer sells photos to the relatives of Adrian Tarazona Manrique, 72, who died of Covid-19 during his burial at the Nueva Esperanza cemetery outside Lima, Peru. In 2013, I visited the Nueva Esperanza cemetery for the first time and met one of its workers, Juan Luis Cabrera, a gravedigger. He says he has never worked as hard as he has in recent months. He continues to work, trying to do so with joy, despite the pain and desolation that is felt in the air.

Photo: Rodrigo Abd. El Angel Cemetery, Lima, Peru. May 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

The family and friends of those who died suffer twice as a result of the loss of loved ones and the inability to say goodbye intimately. Only a few family members can attend; the vast majority of the dead are cremated in solitude.

Covid photography
Photo: Rodrigo Abd. Nueva Esperanza Cemetery, Lima, Peru. May 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Noly Suarez holds a cross during the burial of his brother Flavio Juarez, 50, who died of Covid-19, at the Nueva Esperanza cemetery on the outskirts of Lima. The Nueva Esperanza cemetery is among the largest in the world, with over a million graves, and is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lima. It grows day by day, filled with relatives of the deceased heartbroken from the sudden loss of their loved ones.

Photo: Rodrigo Abd. Lima, Peru. June 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

On Saturday, June 13, an unprecedented mass was held without parishioners, the cathedral was filled with portraits of over 5.000 people who died of Covid-19. Archbishop Carlos Castillo declared that he was 'pleasantly and deeply surprised by the response of our people' in making this collective farewell. He then criticized the Peruvian health system: 'it is based on selfishness and business, and not on mercy and solidarity with people'.

Photo: Newsha Tavakolian. Tehran, Iran. March 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

A year after their father's death, Behrooz, Newsha and their sister went to lay flowers on the grave. They had planned a grand ceremony with guests and food, but had to cancel it when the coronavirus outbreak spread across Iran. “It was very sad, but what can we do? We decided to go to Tehran's Behest-e Zahra Cemetery. Iranians love to visit their loved ones and especially in the weeks leading up to the New Year.” The cemetery, normally very busy during the Iranian New Year, looked strange and abandoned. “Fear is everywhere. Fear of death, fear of the future. Fear of a terrible year ahead.”

Photo: Newsha Tavakolian. Tehran, Iran. March 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Watching, in front of the window, the tree that blooms in the garden makes Jila, Newsha's mother, happy. With the pandemic, she spends a lot of time at the kitchen table looking outside or watching TV. Newsha says that one day her phone rang, it was a lady who had the wrong number. Regardless, they talked for an hour and discovered that they had both lost their husbands in the past year. “My mom hung up and laughed. 'I feel good,' she said.

Photo: Newsha Tavakolian. Tehran, Iran. 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

The author's sister, tired of being indoors, wears a face mask to play badminton with her friends. Newsha has been out of the house to shoot. She says that in Iran, people are used to crises and quickly adapt to new realities. The photographer says she puts on latex gloves, a mask over her mouth and nose and carries an antiseptic sanitizer in her camera bag.

Photo: Arash Khamooshi. Tehran, Iran. May 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Inside their cars, people read the Quran, during Ramadan, on the Night of Destiny, Laylat al-Qadr; the celebration marks the beginning of the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad on Mount Hira in Mecca.

Covid photography
Photo: Arash Khamooshi. Tehran, Iran. March 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

On the eve of the Persian New Year, a bus station in the Iranian capital is empty due to government measures to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

Photo: Cristina De Middel. Itacare, Brazil. May 7, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Chairs are placed outside the local government bank branch, distributing the financial aid provided to families affected by Covid-19.

Photo: Cristina De Middel. Itacare, Brazil. April 18, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

I play with a certain sense of confusion and surprise, trying to associate images with meanings that are not conventional. For me, a good image is one that you don't know how to react to: funny and sad, ridiculous and beautiful, offensive and tender... the combinations are endless.

Covid photography
Photo: Cristina De Middel. Itacare, Brazil. April 18, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Ednaldo Cardoso (44) is the priest of the only Catholic church in Itacaré. He's quite progressive, has a music band, drinks beer. His church has been closed for the last 3 weeks, but he has remained available to anyone in need of spiritual advice via Whatsapp. He cannot confess, but he can listen and try to appease his parishioners from a distance.

Photo: Victor Moriyama. São Paulo Brazil. March 17, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Buyer at an organic fair in Parque da Água Branca, in São Paulo. Brazil confirmed on this day the first death by Covid-19.

Photo: Victor Moriyama. São Paulo Brazil. March 20, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Florist Valdemir da Silva orders the flowers from his stall while waiting for the total closing of stores in the city of São Paulo.

Covid photography
Photo: Victor Moriyama. São Paulo Brazil. May 18, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Passengers at Estação da Luz during peak hours.

Photo: Victor Moriyama. São Paulo Brazil. May 8, 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Tallytta Ferreira, in green, does her nails at a manicurist in the Paraisópolis neighborhood.


Photo: Hélio Campos Mello. São Paulo Brazil. 2020. Courtesy of the photographer.

Founded in France in 1971, MSF – Doctors Without Borders works around the world and serves victims of conflict, natural disasters and scourges such as Ebola and now the coronavirus. In this image, one of her doctors serves the population most vulnerable to Covid-19, in São Paulo. In 2015, there were 15.905 men, women and children living on the streets. According to a census commissioned by the city hall in 2019 and recently released, that number has grown to 24.344. And the vast majority of this frightening number – there are almost 25 homeless people! – is not there by choice.


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