Advice on covering COVID-19 from behind your lens

With no manual on how to cover a pandemic, journalists are learning as they go, risking their safety to document the ways COVID-19 is affecting our world. Reporters and editors alike are reconsidering the ways they gather information while protecting their newsrooms and their sources. While all journalists face  challenges when they venture outside to pursue a story, visual journalists must uniquely consider both themselves and their subjects as they capture our new reality. 

For this edition of Navigator, we spoke with Brittany Greeson, a Detroit-based photojournalist and GroundTruth fellow who has been capturing life during COVID-19 for the New York Times. We also spoke to Max Becherer, photo editor at The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate about how each of them pulled from the experiences in approaching their work in a safe way while still providing compelling visuals that tell the local story of the pandemic. 

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists. Subscribe here:


Safety basics

The Everyday Projects’ “COVID-19 Guide for Visual Journalists” by infectious disease physician-scientist Jenell Stewart, recommends to use a telephoto lens in addition to maintaining a distance of 6 feet from your subject. But even those precautions could be insufficient, hence the need for goggles, a tight mask around your nose and mouth and a full gown when circumstances don’t allow for social distancing, like in a hospital.


Some newsrooms have provided their employees, and even freelancers, with PPE. Greeson ordered additional masks at shops on Facebook that she layers with her own surgical masks when she is in lower-risk environments. 


Safety doesn’t end with PPE, though. Your equipment also needs to be sanitized every time you return from the field. The COVID-19 Guide indicates that SARS-CoV-2 lives on clothes or cloth for approximately one hour, plastic for 72 hours, and glass for 96 hours, and suggests the use of different cleaning solutions, from soap and water to ethanol or bleach, to disinfect your gear.


The guide also recommends assuming the inside of your camera to be contaminated if you are working in a high risk area, given that cameras are not airtight. As part of your disinfecting routine, you should also rotate dials to all positions and clean them, as well as other small crevices in the camera’s body, including your viewfinder. 


Disinfection routine

Greeson follows a sanitation routine after returning home from a day of shooting. If she has worked in close range with others, she’ll immediately remove her outer layer of clothing and put it in the laundry (warm water wash). She’ll then put her equipment down in her office and sanitize “every square inch of it,” keys and phone included. While everything is drying, she safely removes her mask without touching the front of it, setting that to dry in its designated area, too. Every three to four days, Greeson returns to a mask she has washed after coming back from the field. 


Once Becherer has finished his assignments for the day, he doesn’t consider himself home until he has removed his outer layer of clothing and has cleaned his equipment with alcoholic wipes before putting it away. He calls his wife from the driveway and asks her to make sure his two-year-old son doesn’t approach him until after he has put on new clothes. 


Working with subjects

While journalists are critical in documenting this point in history, reporters are only doing as much good as the risk they’ve mitigated. Journalists should only take assignments that are essential in informing the public on what they need to know,  and how to change habits or behavior for the safety of society. 


While working with subjects during the pandemic, transparency is crucial for maintaining the health of you and those you interview. “First we have to make the subject feel comfortable with us. So we have to kind of explain how we might approach them. And then also have the feeling that we kind of have some regulations in place,” said Becherer. Asking the right questions is key. For example, if Becherer was to go to someone’s home to shoot, it would be crucial that he asked if elderly people lived there and explained why he needed to stay on the porch. 


Greeson hasn’t seen pushback from anyone she has asked to photograph, and reminded subjects that her need to maintain social distancing is for the safety of both her and the subject. Journalists must remember their responsibility in protecting those they come in contact with. Dr. Stewart, who also holds a master’s in public health, writes, “While many people are staying inside their homes, you are out on assignment, and it is your responsibility not to track SARS-CoV-2 with you everywhere you go.” 


New rules = chance for creativity

Social distancing measures have created barriers between photographers and subjects, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find new ways to achieve the same impact. For an upcoming feature for the New York Times, Greeson will be shooting pictures entirely through windows, an interesting challenge that she’s excited to take on: “It’s a whole new aesthetic and a new approach to shooting. I’m trying to reference the type of paintings and landscapes of Edward Hopper through this body of work.” Greeson recommends photographers take advantage of the fact that photo editors have also been forced to change the way they work. “They don’t have any preconceived notions of what the photos for the assignment should be, because we’re having to figure out these very practical things about a space or other people,” she said. 


Moving Forward

As with every crisis, COVID-19 has prompted some soul-searching among visual journalists and editors, forcing them to reconsider things that they used to take for granted, something that could factor on how assignments will be given in the future.


Becherer hopes there is a greater emphasis on the importance of visual journalists in contrast to being seen as journalists who come in after the piece is already written or recorded, and hopes procedural conversations will come of the uncertainty that newsrooms face in protecting their reporters. 


Because of the cost of paying for a freelancer’s quarantine time if they were to get sick, employing staffers rather than freelancers has become more economically viable, although typically that had not been the case. Newsrooms have an opportunity to open up questions around the intersection of morality, business and how visual journalists do their work. 


The practices visual journalists pick up while covering COVID-19 may be carried beyond the pandemic. Greeson believes that one potential positive outcome of having to “calm down” to shoot in the pandemic is a more thoughtful aesthetic in visual journalists’ work moving forward. 


“You have the potential to make bad pictures, and I mean bad as in photographs that are too quick to judge a scenario by just showing up and railing off a couple of frames. The way I like to work, which sometimes works to my detriment, is [to] take my time. And now I’m having to slow down even more because I’m aware of my safety and really looking at [the scene.]  I would like to actually see that aesthetic of us just kind of calming down here to move forward and just being more thoughtful with our pictures. I think that’s something good that (could) come out of this,” she said.