The Year in Review - Editorial
It’s difficult to think of a year in recent times more eventful and more tumultuous for photojournalism and editorial photography. Especially in Australia. How have photojournalists worked through a most challenging time? Sam Edmond reports.
While the first few months of the year saw the biggest names in local talent returning to home soil to cover the worst bushfire season in recent history, this disaster quickly segued into the COVID-19 outbreak — a phenomenon that would prove at once the biggest talking point for reportage, journalism, and documentary photography, but also the single biggest source of income loss for photographers, and the publishing industry, in a single year. While 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as a year that most choose to try and forget, it will also be remembered as a year that changed the face of photojournalism and editorial photography forever. From street photography in New York City to the remotest of islands of Southern Australia, a complex web of issues has united photographers across the globe to band together during a global pandemic and say in unison; “OK, now what?”
Fanning the flames
Without doubt, the global COVID-19 pandemic will be noted in history as an event that impacted the lives of almost all Australians. But certainly, the history books will also note the disastrous fire season that prefixed the pandemic outbreak in this country – one of the worst on record, and with unprecedented loss to homes, lives, and wildlife. Recognising the extent of this, an array of some of Australia’s biggest photojournalist exports returned home to cover the disaster, including Andrew Quilty, Adam Ferguson, and Daniel Berehulak.
No stranger to covering disaster, and having won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so, Daniel Berehulak says his choice to cover not only the main event of bushfire outbreaks, but also the fallout in South Australia, was as deeply personal as it was professional. “It just felt wrong not to cover this story,” he says. “I went to Kangaroo Island to see the extent of the damage caused by the fires, and there I met an amazing group of people that were dedicated to rehabilitate the island. As a kid, I grew up on a farm out near Werombi…so this was really a story that hit close to home for me.” Known for his work covering Ebola as well as Philippines’ drug wars, and floods in Pakistan, Berehulak’s work for magazines around the world has focused squarely on large-scale disasters and epidemics, but even for someone so versed in this sort of turmoil, the Mexico-based photojournalist admits that bushfires and COVID-19 were a string of events that brought a constant sense of unease to an ex-pat whose family is now split across continents: “I have a life in Mexico City, and we started quarantining pretty early on, so I decided to stay home with my fiancée and our two dogs, but I keep in regular contact with my family in Aus, and we check in on each other regularly.”
And as for the future of making a living reporting on such events around the world? “Photojournalism is going to be deeply impacted,” Berehulak says. “I think budgets are being cut, editors are wary about sending people into the field; and just like most businesses, photojournalism is going to be affected. Nevertheless, I believe that this has been such an eye-opening experience for all of us, and the learnings that we will get from this in the long run are going to be invaluable.”
In early April, while the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on most of the planet, most of the world’s gaze shifted to the United States as their poor handling of the initial outbreak meant stories focused on the astronomical number of cases, and photographers were assigned to the cover the crisis unfolding around the country. But, perhaps uniquely to the USA, outbreaks in the social justice community meant a violent combination of pandemic and social unrest hit the streets of major cities including New York, where street photographer Daniel Arnold most typically spends his days working in the observational NYC street photography tradition. But as his regular jaunts for reportage soon turned to battleground scenes, Arnold’s task of reporting on his beloved city took unprecedented importance, much of which was surmised in an innovative story in The New York Times style section, edited by Eve Lyons, where Arnold pushed the limits of the relevance and use of street photography in an editorial setting.
As Arnold himself recalls, realising that he was at the coalface of such an unprecedented time, throwing his hat in the photojournalism ring initially yielded no response. Perhaps to the regret of the those who later saw his now-celebrated document of the city in strife. “When this started, I kind of threw my hat in the ring to newspaper people. I was like, ‘Look, I'm going out every day, so if you need a man on the street, I'm available’. And didn't even get a reply,” says Arnold. But as he adds; the realisation of the importance of this era was what drove him to continue documenting New York City in a style that blends his typical street work with a tinge of photojournalism, adding that to look to other genres might be to avoid some kind of responsibility that photographers of his calibre have at such a time. “I am very comfortable doing work where I'm documenting what’s happening in the city; I guess I feel much more comfortable right now with journalistic work than anything else. The idea of doing a fashion job right now…how could I possibly do that?”
While the nobility of Arnold’s want to document this state of his beloved city is a near anomaly among photographers of his status, a similar thread has appeared among other American photographers who have found the need to tread a precarious line between photographer, influencer, and activist at such an unprecedented time in the country’s history. At just over one million Instagram followers, photographer Cory Richards says that while his platform drastically amplifies his voice in such a divided community, he is acutely aware of his role and obligations in the public sphere. “Do I feel a responsibility because of my audience? No. Do I feel a responsibility because of my position and privilege? Yes,” says Richards. “Instagram can be used for good, but it’s also used to disseminate trash and vitriol, so I try to keep my intentions very authentic and very clear. Because of that, I feel pulled to make statements about climate change and black lives matter, and similar movements, because of my own understanding of my place within those issues. I don’t agree with popular handles being lambasted because their silence is deafening. You have to remember that behind every large account is an actual human being who is trying to sort out their own place in the issue. And that can take time.”
As a photographer whose work has focused largely on adventure, the environment, and climate change, Richards is familiar with making astute observations about the human condition – an ability that was perhaps heightened by a near miss with an avalanche in Pakistan in 2011. From photographing grizzly bears in Yellowstone for Nat Geo to portraits of the world’s most disciplined athletes, over the last year Richards’ work has painted a detailed picture of our relationship with the natural world. But looking ahead, the American says that COVID-19 could reveal more than we like to show about our collective thoughts on nature, and ourselves. “We are a reactive species. That’s why we have a difficult time tackling issues like climate change. Because we don’t see the incremental temperature rise and until we are impacted by something personally, we don’t respond,” he says. “Basically, we’re saying, ‘Fuck everything else for the time being because at the moment I need to not die from these germs.”
Back on the home front
Arnold’s work from the epicentre of much of the strife in the United States will surely become of significant historical importance, as will that of the Australian photographers who have been tasked to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country. Spearheading reportage on the outbreak were Sydney Morning Herald photographers like Nick Moir, Louise Kennerly, and Kate Geraghty, with Geraghty most typically noted for her commitment to covering wars and conflicts overseas. In her years at The Sydney Morning Herald, Geraghty’s work has covered conflict, natural disasters, and epidemics, but as she says, the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented turbulence to daily life on her home soil. “We [at the Herald] are all used to covering crises, but during the initial phases of the virus when we didn’t know how contagious it was, we were forced to photograph at a distance and make pictures of people outside their homes. So, it was difficult to establish rapport,” says Geraghty. “But because this was so unprecedented, we also needed to convince the authorities, like NSW Health, of the importance of documenting this and gaining access to things like hospitals.”
Over the coming weeks, after long discussions with St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, Geraghty was given access to document the hospital’s response to confirmed COVID-19 cases and became the first media person allowed access to the “Red Zone” – St Vincent’s in-house term for their isolation ward and housing for confirmed COVID-19 cases. “Not only were they working on the normal load of daily emergencies, they were also needing to respond to this virus. I spent days and nights with the staff in a quite-rare opportunity to see what doctors and nurses were needing to do every single day,” recalls Geraghty. “To tell this story and to have it published was quite special, and quite important, because with lockdowns, these people in the red zone could not have visitors, they could not be comforted by their loved ones. Nobody was allowed in. So, we needed to show the amount of care that was given by the medical staff. And to tell that story.”
Looking to the future
Among a sea of turbulence, change, and uncertainty for photography, aside from wedding photographers, those focused on photojournalism and editorial photography are perhaps experiencing most change as a result of COVID-19. While the vast majority of this impact has come as a detriment, there are cracks of light on the horizon and quite literally just beneath the surface of this uncertainty, opportunity for creativity is boiling away. Most probably as a result of more time working at home, The New York Times Australia bureau chief Damien Cave one day noticed an increase in Australians taking to the ocean with spearguns. Whether this was correlated with the global pandemic or not, Cave and Times picture editor Mikko Takkunen assigned Sydney-based photographer Michaela Skovranova to photograph the story of seaside dwellers who take to the ocean in search of protein, and perhaps some form of city-bound subsistence hunting. “This story deeply relates to my work,” says Skovranova. “It highlights the importance of having the ability to harvest food from the ocean and to provide for a wider community, especially during challenging times, which we are currently experiencing.”
No stranger to adventure, Skovranova has formed a huge following for herself in recent years with partnerships with Huawei and Olympus taking her to Antarctica, and beyond. But as she recounts, the nature of a humble spearfishing mindset and the chance to immerse oneself in the fluidity of the ocean during equally unpredictable times was the antidote Skovranova needed to the stressors of life as a photographer under COVID-19. “Upon my return to Australia in early March as the world began to shut down, all my projects were understandably cancelled [but] in some strange way COVID-19 forced a much-needed pause, and created an opportunity for me to be able to focus on health and attempt to decipher what my future may look like moving forward,” she says. “I believe we have been afforded an intimate insight into the human condition and shared experience of life. I hope this will help to guide us in an uncertain future. We have seen many incredible stories emerge, created locally with local photographers, and I am looking forward to seeing a lot more of that.”
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