The price of COVID-19 photographs
The way we understand the ongoing pandemic is mostly shaped by the media, but in times of directly invisible unrest, a special role is played by photojournalists. Supporting health communication with images facilitates people’s attention, makes it easier to remember, identify with and understand the information presented. Therefore, photography testifying dangers and challenges of the current crisis, can expand or even strengthen the narrative of the pandemic. As we look at the pictures reflecting the stories hit by the effects of the pandemic, we shouldn’t forget the real cost of visiting the backstage of this humanitarian crisis and reporting on its challenges. What effort does this require from photojournalists themselves?
One of the first photojournalists in Lithuania, who was allowed to photograph inside hospitals during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arturas Morozovas, singled out that one of the main challenges during this type of work was the emotional one, accompanied both during and after work. Morozovas admitted that the feeling of constant uncertainty troubled his well-being and didn’t vanish even after getting into closer contact with medical staff. He was emotionally tired and had constant hesitation in finding the best way to talk about this topic. Realizing that some patients are reluctant to communicate or even unconscious due to serious conditions, photojournalist chose not to show their faces.
“… we know your working methods, the sensitivity you rely on,” Morozov remembers the doctors reflecting his work before inviting him to collaborate with hospitals along with his camera. However, Lithuanian photojournalist also had to deal with moral challenges. Arturas recalls as he was standing by the bed as one person was losing his life. “Obviously you want to stay, to see some of that procedure … But your morals, values. What am I doing here? Waiting for a person to die to be photographed? Those stories will happen anyway. You don’t have to plan them in some way and wait like a griffin”.
Many types of research conducted during the pandemic about mental health, reveal similar tendencies, which are significantly deteriorating people’s emotional health and prolonged stress resulting from uncertainty about the future and changed living conditions. “Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are still learning to live with an ambient thrum of stress, anxiety, fear, grief and anger. For many people — especially those recovering from the virus or juggling work and child care — brain fog and inattention have been collateral damage”, says journalist Jamie Ducharme, covering the mental challenges during the pandemic. (TIME, 2020)
These challenges undoubtedly affect members of the journalistic community as well. As early as 2020, the International Center for Journalists and Columbia University Tow conducted a study by the Digital Journalism Center, which surveyed 1,406 English — speaking journalists from 125 countries, showing a strong relationship between journalists’ work and emotional health during a pandemic. 70% of all respondents said that the psychological and emotional difficulties experienced by the pandemic information were the most difficult in their work aspect (ICJnet, 2020).
Two out of three journalists experience emotional difficulties and identify them as the most difficult aspect of this professional period, the same study indicates. Most common factors depend on both the negative content or the negative experiences encountered at work, both with poor working conditions. The deterioration in the emotional health of journalists is marked by increased anxiety, fatigue and burnout syndrome, difficulty sleeping, feeling unable to help, negative thoughts, mourning for loss, increased crying, increased depression, anxiety attacks, or first time experiencing these symptoms. As well, as the feeling that the personal and professional ethical standards of journalists were violated handling the information related to COVID-19.
As mentioned, it also contributes significantly to the deteriorating emotional health of journalists’ negativity of information. Preparing news about traumas naturally creates additional traumas. Natalee Seely, a lecturer in journalism at Ball State University in Indiana, US, says that “Like therapists — who through the process of ‘transference’ can vicariously experience their patients’ emotional pain — reporters may also experience a type of indirect, secondary trauma through the victims they interview and the graphic scenes to which they must bear witness”. (Journalists and mental health, 2019).
The pandemic period can be attributed to traumatic events due to the responsibility to testify about the victims or their fates for the loved ones, deteriorating health trends, changes in the health care system, which in most cases, the public agrees negatively. Visits in hospitals also contribute to a traumatic experience where, in direct contact with the sick, journalists face additional anxiety about their own and their loved ones’ health. These intense experiences leave an impression on journalists’ consciousness, with increased stress challenging in daily activities, and often, this negative information traumatizes and affects their own emotional health.
As we skim through the horrific pictures from the most difficult times in the 21st century, we shouldn’t forget, that journalists are generally resilient to the daily stress of their work and challenges facing crises, but they are not immune to trauma.