As the owner of an editorial photography agency, a big part of my job is predicting the future. When news stories break, publications often rush to find photos depicting whatever big event has just happened. Having those photos ready to go— ideally well in advance— is a big part of our business, and a big part of my job. It requires anticipating the news cycle at least 3–6 months in advance.
Some things, though, are nearly impossible to predict in advance. In January of 2020 I was in the middle of writing an article about “Visual Trends for the Next Five Years”, when everything suddenly changed. Covid-19 went from a local news story in China to a global, crushing pandemic which has changed everything about how we live our lives — and everything about how the world looks.
As an agency owner, a photographer, and a journalist, I’ve spent the last year covering Covid-19. Here’s a look back at what the experience has been like.
The Early Days of the Pandemic
Compared to the rest of the photographic world, we saw the potential impact of Covid-19 fairly early. I learned about the disease in December of 2019, when it was spreading locally in China, and most people expected it would stay contained (as MERS and SARS had before). We don’t have a photographic presence in China, so it wasn’t as much on our radar. But that started to change in January of 2020, when more and more reports suggested that the disease would break out of Asia and spread (at least in some capacity), in the United States.
My company’s first coronavirus photo was taken by one of our contributing photographers in New York City, Europa Newswire. It shows attendees at New York’s Lunar New Year’s parade on January 25th, 2020 wearing masks — one of the earliest examples of people in the United States recognizing the threat Covid-19 posed and taking protective measures. On January 28th, I would take my first Covid-19 photo, of a warning sign for travelers at UCSF hospital in San Francisco.
At that point, Covid-19 wasn’t really visually present in the United States. Beyond UCSF, there weren’t many signs warning about it, social distancing wasn’t yet a household word, and masks were a rarity. That made the virus hard to depict directly. So instead, we turned to creating illustrative images — photos of the virus’ genetic code on computer screens, stock images of medical face masks, and the like.
In late February and early March 2020, that started to change. We began to see a handful of people out on the streets wearing masks. I wrote my first journalistic piece about the virus. Some things were eerily prescient (“Hopefully, the ultimate environment-altering factor will come along soon, and stop COVID-19 in its tracks: a vaccine.”) and some (like an overall emphasis on handwashing) represented the best science at the time, but have since been revised totally altered (like the discovery that basic surgical masks actually do help to stop the virus).
Science Reveals the Shockingly Simple Step You Can Take to Stop COVID-19
Hint: It’s not quarantines or masks
And by the first weeks of March, it was apparent that something major was about to happen. As I traveled through San Francisco to take photos, it was eerily quiet. There as a feeling of the calm before the storm — or of an impending apocalypse which was arriving in slow motion, one day at a time.
I wrote another piece at the time which turned out to be quite accurate, this time dealing with Covid-19 and its implications for data privacy.
In a Pandemic, Data Privacy Goes Out the Window
What you need to know about your privacy as the coronavirus spreads
My prediction that Covid-19 would lead to compromised privacy was spot on, although I anticipated that privacy would be compromised primarily by government authorities seeking to search and quarantine people. As it turns out, the virus spread way too fast for those kinds of measures to be employed after the very earliest days. Most of the privacy issues around Covid-19 have instead arrived through the actions of private companies, who have done things like quietly expanding facial recognition with the pandemic as justification.
The Rise of Covid-19 Temperature Scanners That Can Also Capture and Store Your Face
In late February, I visited an office building that I frequent in San Ramon, California. Due to an ongoing Covid-19…
Throughout that time, I and the team kept shooting photos and videos. Some of my last photos before lockdowns arrived showed the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California. Already, the museum had added hand-washing stations, and crowds were almost non-existent.
Then, in mid-March, everything changed. As it became clear that the virus’ spread was out of control, the Bay Area became the first region in America to implement a Covid-19 lockdown. The lockdown was nearly total — everything from schools to businesses to non-essential doctors’ offices would shut, initially for a period of 2 weeks.
As the lockdown approached and authorities began to ban gatherings and close schools, stores began to run out of food, paper goods, and other essentials. On March 12th, I drove to Oakland to take photos of the Grand Princess, a cruise ship which was plagued by Covid-19 infections and discharged its passengers along a commercial stretch of pier at the Port of Oakland. The white tents erected around the ship to quarantine passengers were ominous, like something out of a disaster movie.
On March 16, the lockdown was officially announced. On the night of the announcement, I went to Target and Whole Foods, partially to buy food for my own family, and partially to document what was going on. People were panicking, and gathering in huge groups to stock up on everything they could get their hands on. Looking at my photos now, I cringe a bit, because everyone was packed into the stores, few people wore masks, and “social distancing” was still an alien concept.
We know now that packing stores with thousands of unmasked people in close proximity was probably a huge problem. But at the time, people had no idea what would happen next, and were stocking up on anything they could think of. When I took photos and videos on the 16th, nearly everything was gone. Whole aisles had been cleaned out. It was spooky, and something I had never experienced before.
As the world entered lockdowns, we turned our attention to documenting the impact— economic, social, political, and more. We brought in photographers in other geographies, and sourced photos showing conditions on the ground in New York, New Jersey, Japan, and many other places. I turned my attention to photographing closed businesses, food delivery, and the like.
I also reflected on what the pandemic would ultimately mean for the Bay Area.
Could the Bay Area Emerge Stronger After COVID-19?
We’re all undergoing one massive, forced experiment
Some of my predictions would resonate a year later. The forced experiment of remote work for the tech industry has largely succeeded, and many tech companies are moving to remote work going forward. Other things — like enhanced support for the Bay Area’s homeless — haven’t progressed as much as they should.
I also wrote several early reports on conditions in San Francisco, since much of the world was looking to the Bay Area as an example of what life under lockdown was like.
March 20, 2020: The Bay Area Lockdown Begins
Updates on conditions in the Bay Area during the COVID-19 lockdown
As a photographer, I walked the now-empty streets of San Francisco, documenting the experience photographically and also in another piece about covering the pandemic. I’m proud of this one, and it includes my favorite self-portrait of all the ones I’ve taken.
The Eerie Job of Photographing San Francisco’s Empty Streets
Documenting the city right now is surreal
It was still unclear at this point how the pandemic would unfold. When I wrote a piece about Clearview AI for OneZero, my editor Megan Morrone and I wondered whether we should still release it in March, or “wait until this whole Covid-19 thing calms down.” Little did we know that the pandemic would still be ongoing— and devastating — a year later. (We ended up publishing the piece on schedule).
As the Spring moved into Summer, conditions deteriorated, and much of the world joined the Bay Area in locking down. One of the hardest moments of the Summer was covering New York City as it became the epicenter of Covid-19 in the United States. Many of our contributors, and my photographic colleagues at other agencies, shared with me that they were afraid for their lives when they went out to document the city. Yet often at enormous personal risk, they shot photos anyway, and kept documenting what was taking place.
I remember receiving photos from our of our contributors of the “Barge of the Dead”, carrying refrigerated morgue trucks filled with the bodies of Covid-19 causalities to Hart Island, to be buried in mass graves. Those images were powerful and incredibly hard to see, edit, and process. I can’t imagine what it was like for the photographer who shot them — or my colleagues who kept photographing in emergency rooms, funeral homes, and more as the pandemic wore on.
During the Summer, I covered facemasks, 3D printed Covid-19 touch tools, different models for creating pods, and more. I was proud to be early to covering long Covid and the ongoing challenges of people who battle morbidity related to Covid-19 infections.
Official Covid-19 Statistics Are Missing Something Critical
Even if you recover from Covid-19, you may not escape unscathed
Towards the end of the Summer, things began to improve. In August, I discovered promising research at Oak Ridge National Labs, which had used a supercomputer to analyze the virus, and discovered important information about how it spread within the body. Their paper launched the Bradykinin Hypothesis, which I covered here on Medium for Elemental, working with Kate Green Tripp, Alexandra Sifferlin and others.
A Supercomputer Analyzed Covid-19 — and an Interesting New Theory Has Emerged
A closer look at the Bradykinin hypothesis
My piece ended up receiving 12 million views and was discussed in Congress. It was a surreal experience, walking around and hearing people talk about the piece, even though they had no idea I was the one who had written in. Many of the Oak Ridge team’s discoveries have now become a standard part of treatment for Covid-19, especially their insights about Vitamin D.
Near the end of the Summer, things had improved to the point where many restaurants and businesses were open again. Yet as we moved into Fall, second and third waves of Covid-19 once again crippled the world. I predicted a second surge in New York City in late July.
New York’s Covid-19 Surge Will Begin Around July 27th
Data from other states suggests that New York is far from safe
It turns out I was wrong about the timing, but right about the surge. It arrived about four months later, in early November, and was even more devastating as the first wave of Covid-19 in the state. The Bay Area suffered through rising cases and more deaths, too. Our photographers captured the challenges facing small businesses after months of restrictions — as well as the promising resilience of certain businesses and business models.
As 2020 ended and we moved into 2021, things began to change in a big way: vaccines arrived. These turned out to be dramatically more effective than most people expected, a story which I covered.
The Covid-19 Shot is the Best Vaccine Ever Developed: NY Times
It’s up to 100% effective, but public health officials aren’t sharing this
Because of restrictions on visitors — and because most of our photographers are under 65 — documenting vaccines photographically has been challenging. We’re turned to what our industry calls User Generated Content or UGC — photographs taken by non-professional photographers on cellphones or basic cameras. Taking this approach has allowed us to capture real vaccine selfies and other iconic images of the vaccination effort.
After covering the pandemic for over a year photographically and journalistically, much remains uncertain. The world — and especially the Bay Area — remain largely locked down. Vaccination is leading to major improvements in case rates, and things are trending in a positive direction, even as variants and vaccine supply issues raise concerns about whether that will continue. Many of the mental health issues which I addressed in my very first piece about the virus have proven to be consequential and pervasive, and rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illness have surged as we all battle isolation and move through over a year of stress.
As we move ahead, though, I look towards the future with hope. The fact that that modern science would develop multiple vaccines for the virus in less than a year — and that they’d prove both safe and incredibly effective — was another thing about the future that I absolutely didn’t predict at the beginning of the pandemic. Through the incredibly efforts of scientists, doctors, researchers, and front-line workers everywhere, the world has development treatments, best practices, cultural changes, and ultimately vaccines that have a real chance of bringing the pandemic to an end.
Will thing go back to normal? I don’t think so. Or at least, normal will look different. In some ways, this will be extremely negative, as our communities stand battered and exhausted from a year of fighting through the social, medical and economic impact of a deadly virus. Yet some things which emerged during the pandemic — more flexible work arrangements, more comprehensive government aid, a renewed focus on racial justice, and more will hopefully persist.
What are we planning for future coverage? Certainly, I expect that we’ll be continuing to cover Covid-19’s impact for a while longer. But I also anticipate — and look forward to — beginning another kind of coverage: coverage of a world emerging from the crushing grip of the virus. I look forward to photographing people reuniting, traveling, eating out again (maybe even indoors), and otherwise reestablishing the social and economic fabric that Covid-19 has largely destroyed.
I don’t know when that reality will emerge. With vaccination ramping up, it could as soon as the third quarter of this year. But when it does come to pass, I — and photojournalists like me — will be there to document it.