Telecommuting not an option: Photojournalists are at the forefront of coverage of COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the routine of journalists worldwide. The rule is to work from home and many Latin America newsrooms have adapted to the situation. This goes for reporters, editors and designers. However, for a certain group of press professionals, this isn’t a possibility. Photojournalists need to be on the streets to document the crisis closely. In their case, routines have changed, with security and protection measures comparable to those needed to cover armed conflicts.

Improvised wake in the trunk of the car in São Paulo. (Photo: Yan Boech)

Improvised wake in the trunk of the car in São Paulo. (Photo: Yan Boech)

This is the case of the Brazilian Yan Boechat, who has extensive experience in covering armed conflicts around the world, in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq. He is currently engaged in coverage of the pandemic on the streets of São Paulo, the largest city in Latin America, and has found similarities with the wars he covered:

“We are in the initial process of something that may look like a conflict situation, with many victims and the inability of health services to treat everyone. There is also a parallel with the uncertainty about how the situation will unfold, without knowing what will happen. I am anguished about not knowing if I'm going to the right place, about not covering the right thing,” Boechat told the Knight Center.

Yan Boechat added a mask and glove to his photographic equipment. (Photo: Courtesy)

Yan Boechat added a mask and glove to his photographic equipment. (Photo: Courtesy)

As a freelancer, he published reports on the coronavirus pandemic in Folha de S. Paulo and Yahoo Notícias. In the absence of text reporters to accompany him, he researches and writes the reports himself, since he spent a good part of his career as a reporter and text editor before incorporating photography into his list of activities.

“The coverage has been very remote. There are not many people doing in-person reports. There are people, but it's not enough. I met a photographer for a big newspaper in a favela. He reported that he was there alone because no reporter wanted to go outside. It is obvious that there is risk involved and everyone knows the risk they want to be exposed to. A crisis like this, which is a human crisis, the main focus of the stories is people dying, losing their lives. Covering it remotely makes it cold, distant. It is a moment for the reporter to be on the street, but I understand that not everyone wants to take that risk, it is a private decision,” Boechat said.

To minimize the risk of infection, he is equipped with masks and gloves, in addition to disinfecting all the photographic equipment he carries on a daily basis. In search of stories, the journalist has been on duty in cemeteries and large hospitals in the city, in addition to visiting peripheral and poor areas of the city. And it was thanks to the work on the street that he was able to anticipate what the numbers later confirmed: the increase in the number of deaths and the challenge of burying victims of the coronavirus.

“I went to the cemetery, on duty at a cemetery door, to see if there was a victim of COVID-19. I found a lot of victims when the numbers still didn't show it. (...) The question of lonely farewells, the uncertainty of how death happened, is a subject that has surfaced. It is a very painful part of this process. You can't see the body, can't look or say your last goodbye.”

Additional risk for freelancers without fixed contracts

In El Salvador, Juan Carlos protects himself while covering the streets of San Salvador. (Photo: Courtesy)

In El Salvador, Juan Carlos protects himself while covering the streets of San Salvador. (Photo: Courtesy)

For Salvadoran Juan Carlos, one of the biggest concerns in covering the pandemic is the risk of becoming infected and needing to stop his work. As a freelancer for foreign publications, he is responsible for ensuring his own safety, health insurance and equipment.

"Going out to cover this pandemic is like covering the front lines. When you are in a conflict zone or pandemic risk zone, you have to make a preparedness plan, think about the situations you may encounter and how to get out of them. Same here. You have to have your attention at 1000%, like in a conflict zone. (...) We as freelancers do not have health insurance. You provide yourself with everything. No one will answer for you," Juan Carlos, who, among other conflicts, has covered the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, told the Knight Center.

The photojournalist recalled that his and his colleagues' work does not only require them to be on the streets, but close to the action, because “because not everything can be done with a long-range lens.”

One of Juan Carlos' photos that illustrates this text is from the day he left to cover the payment of a cash bonus for people who were left without work. The relief for the population ended up putting everyone at risk: a line of more than a thousand people was formed, all close to each other, that is, the perfect scenario for the spread of the virus. And there was Juan, exposing himself to the risk of becoming infected.

“What happens to me the most, after the end of the day or the reporting, I start to think, and if someone touched me, or the camera, or when I walked, they brushed me. It makes you a little bit more concerned and trying to do everything to protect myself,” he said.
In Peru, photographer documents communities without water
Award-winning Peruvian photographer Musuk Nolte is currently working on a documentary series on water scarcity on the outskirts of Lima, within the explorers project of National Geographic magazine.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the theme of his series took on even more urgent dimensions, since water for the poorest population in Lima is precisely the most important health resource for combating the coronavirus.

As he works independently and is not at the forefront of coverage of the health crisis, the journalist uses the opportunity to record the daily lives of people living in the peripheral areas of the Peruvian capital. He published a graphic report in Ojo Público in which he shows the risk of an epidemic in the arid and poorest areas of the city.

"There is a paradox. The government advises you to wash your hands for 20 seconds every time you have contact with other people or go out. In places where a water truck arrives once a week, or perhaps once every two weeks, one has to minimize water consumption,” Nolte told the Knight Center.

He points out that care with personal protection, such as wearing a mask when on the street and adopting social distance, becomes more important when working in the most vulnerable areas.

Musuk Nolte produces series on water scarcity in Lima: "people are more vulnerable without basic hygiene items." (Photo: Courtesy)

Musuk Nolte produces series on water scarcity in Lima: "people are more vulnerable without basic hygiene items." (Photo: Courtesy)

“People in deprived areas are very generous. They invite you to eat, they offer you a glass of water. I have to explain the situation and avoid any type of physical contact and minimize the impact that I can have in this vulnerable situation,” he said.

In another photo report, Nolte recorded daily life in a community in Lima whose inhabitants are descendants of indigenous people of Peru and where water scarcity and lack of basic sanitation are aggravating conditions of the pandemic.

“There is a more subjective, singular question of quarantine, which is deciding to leave or not to leave. Especially for us journalists who are freelance. We could eventually focus on other issues. We are witnesses of those who cannot leave, through this license that we have been given, this responsibility to know that we are leaving our houses to add to the people who have to move around the city for things to work. Documentary photography work allows us to show certain realities," he said.
Cooperative newspaper in Argentina removes photographers from the streets 
At Tiempo Argentino, none of the five photographers on the team is working on the streets to cover the day-to-day life of the COVID-19 pandemic in Buenos Aires. The newspaper was the first recuperated in the country and is run by a workers' cooperative. Although it has remained financially healthy for four years, it is unable to offer the same level of wages or benefits to the staff as other publications. This is one of the reasons that led to the decision to protect its team as much as possible.

“From the beginning, as a collective of workers we have tried to take care of our health in the best possible way. As we are a self-managed company, we do not have the benefits of a good monthly income or the possibility of having good health coverage, that is why we try to preserve ourselves as much as possible,” Edgardo Gómez, photography editor, told the Knight Center.

According to Gómez, the solution has been to rely on content produced by news agencies, government agencies, social organizations and social networks. Despite the restriction, there are occasional cases of going out on the street when the news is necessary. He decided to accompany an assembly of workers from a slaughterhouse who had been laid off in the middle of a pandemic.

“Incredibly, they had been repressed by the police for protesting in front of the company. I tried to be in the place and at the same time take care of myself as much as possible, but in situations like these, even the same people leave security behind, not all luckily, because there are other reasons that take priority, such as their work, their food,” he said.
Ecuadorian photojournalist caught between duty and desire to protect family
Photographer Diego Ayala León works in Quito for GK, a digital media outlet from Ecuador. Daily, he lives with the dilemma of whether or not to leave the house to work. In his case, exposing himself to the coronavirus is also a risk for his family, as his mother lives with him and has health problems. Without a car and with public transport suspended in the city, he has been walking for three to four hours a day in search of images to illustrate texts by his colleagues.

Diego Ayala León walks for three to four hours a day in Quito in search of images. (Photo: Courtesy)

Diego Ayala León walks for three to four hours a day in Quito in search of images. (Photo: Courtesy)

“I try to get photos that can serve more to portray the texts and that means that I have to have a generic vision of things, I have to be able to take photos that serve to portray all the subjects and I also need to be able to generate my own content,” the photojournalist told the Knight Center.

During these walks through the streets of Quito, Ayala León produced a series “Retratos de la emergencia” (Portraits of the emergency), with images and brief profiles of workers who have the obligation and need to leave home to keep the country running or to survive. As he finds new characters, he adds them to the series. Recognizing these workers is an additional motivation to compensate for the risks to which he is exposed.

“Often journalists have this vision that our duty is to report and tell all the stories. So, of course, under that logic, you are a hero who goes down the street to save the world by telling and sharing things that no one else has said. But to what extent does duty have to collide with your security and with the security of your own family?”