Documenting the Covid-19 Pandemic with Photography

Documenting the Covid-19 Pandemic with Photography

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© Jason Schneider

The Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 curtailed and transformed social interaction on an unprecedented scale. It also provided creative photographers with an unparalleled opportunity. And that is to serve humanity by preserving this unique moment in human history for future generations. Documenting the Covid-19 Pandemic with a camera is a great way to cope with anxiety and social isolation.

It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime creative assignment; a positive affirmation of life; and also a visual testament to the transcendence of the human spirit. Here are a few suggestions to help make it a rewarding experience that’s safe for you and your human subjects. We also offer tips to ensure your images may be included in the historical record of these tumultuous times.

Documenting the Covid-19 Pandemic

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© Jason Schneider

In response to this transformational cataclysm, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History formed a Rapid Response Collecting task force to address the Covid-19 Pandemic. Its main objective is to formulate a plan that achieves a balance between the urgency of documenting the ephemeral aspects of significant events as they happen and the need to provide a long-term historical perspective. In other words, it must determine how best to collect and preserve tangible materials. These include objects, photographs as well as documents that will join its permanent collections. These materials will help future historians and visitors make sense of the challenges of the pandemic; as well as represent the     resilient and innovative spirit of the country.

At this point, the museum cannot accept physical artifacts. Therefore, curators are asking prospective donors to hold on to any relevant objects for consideration for future acquisition. Before submitting any object or image to the museum, we suggest you send an e-mail to inquiry@si.edu specifying what you have in mind.

Any new materials that are accepted will join long-standing existing collections documenting past epidemics and pandemics. Also in the collection are materials regarding other national crises, such as the Great Depression and the September 11 attacks.

Through its incomparable collections, rigorous research as well as dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History “seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past.”

Additional Historical Collections
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© Jason Schneider

Finally, it’s worth noting that many universities, colleges and other national and local museums are also accepting pandemic images and artifacts for their historical collections. Examples: the Anacostia Museum encourages people in the Washington region to submit digital photographs, videos as well as written accounts to its new Moments of Resilience collection. The Anacostia wishes “to ensure that 3, 5 or 10 years from now the human impact of this story is not lost.”

In addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture plans to collect images, objects and narratives from Baltimore, Chicago, Denver and New Orleans “that tell the stories of black Americans during the pandemic.”

It is a distinct honor to be part of this noble national undertaking; urging your friends, associates and customers to participate can only redound to the benefit of our great country, and to the imaging industry we know and love.

How You Can Document the Pandemic

Keeping your distance from people while documenting the greatest worldwide catastrophe of our time poses challenges. However, it’s a worthwhile endeavor for historical reasons; it’s also a great way to express your creative insight.

To get an idea of the kind of images that will capture the spirit of the times and resonate with future generations, take a close look at the timeless images of the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were created under the auspices of the FSA (Farm Security Administration) by such renowned photographers as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Marion Post Wolcott and many others. Great-Depression-CollageAn image of masked grocery shoppers standing in line six feet apart is analogous to the searing FSA photographs of lines of dispirited unemployed men and women standing in the breadlines of the 1930s.

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© Jason Schneider

Other documentary suggestions: A gallery of closedforbusiness signs as well as signs with hopeful or inspirational messages. Consider a portfolio of rainbow signs adorned with messages of solidarity and hope; a picture collection of posters praising doctors, nurses, EMTs and store clerks for their courageous service; or coverage of people on their porches or at their windows holding nightly demonstrations, cheering essential workers. Of course, another subject is cute but harrowing pictures of entire families wearing protective masks. Or even a collage of creative handmade face masks, now a new artform. Practically any camera/lens combo is suitable for documentary photography. However, telephoto prime and zoom lenses in the 100–300mm-equivalent range will give you a closer view of the scene. They will also enable you to pick out significant details of attire, expressions, interactions, etc., without violating any protocols.

Subjects Safe for Close-Up Shooting

Remember, there’s a world of subject categories and creative niches out there where the six-foot distance and wearafacemask rules don’t apply. They include virtually all inanimate objects you don’t physically touch, such as architecture; houses; signs; landscapes; still life; and abstract compositions. Moreover, add flowers, trees, deserted streets and nature scenes to the subject list.

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© Jason Schneider

In addition, wildlife, dogs, cats and other animals encountered on a socially distanced nature walk don’t require special precautions. Except, keep your bare hands off the critters. You can also shoot close-ups of people in your immediate family group who are living with you in close proximity. However, keep in mind that anyone that leaves your home to shop for groceries, go to a medical appointment, etc., is at increased risk to transmit the disease to family members. The bottom line: Family members often make great portrait subjects; but try not to get closer than three feet when photographing them. Wash your hands frequently and watch the excellent hand-washing and proper maskwearing videos posted by the CDC and other official agencies.

Telephoto Lenses: Safely Shooting Intimate People Pictures

Many savvy photographers rely on fast, moderatetelephoto prime lenses and zooms with maximum focal lengths in the 85–135mm focal length range as their go-to portrait lenses. These lenses are also a great choice for covering the pandemic. They allow you to capture framefilling headshots and head-and-shoulders portraits at safe shooting distances in the recommended six-foot-plus range, while minimizing the apparent perspective distortion common in close-ups shot with shorter lenses.

Moreover, telephoto lenses deliver very shallow depth of field at their widest apertures. As a result, they create compelling pictorial effects by isolating the sharply rendered subject against a pleasantly soft background. Since they effectively double the working (camera to subject) distance compared to normal lenses, they not only fulfill current six-foot socialdistancing requirements, they also make the photographer less intrusive and intimidating. And that’s a big plus when taking portraits of skittish subjects like pets and little kids.

What’s more, telephoto prime lenses ranging from 135–200mm and zoom lenses in the 70–210mm or thereabouts range deliver all the above-mentioned advantages of moderate telephotos. They also allow even greater camera-to-subject distances. Consequently, they’re superb choices for covering the pandemic from a safe social distance, as well as capturing incisive, detailed, lowdistortion portraits or action shots of kids. The creative possibilities are endless.

Digital Zoom: Instant Telephoto at the Touch of a Button

Don’t have a telephoto lens handy? Most digital cameras provide a digital zoom feature; it essentially captures a cropped image of what’s recorded on the sensor. In effect, it creates a telephoto effect image that looks the same as an image taken with a longer lens.

Despite some manufacturers’ claims to the contrary, there is no way of doing this “losslessly.” However, given the high performance parameters and resolution of the sensors and image processors in modern digital cameras, and the outstanding quality of most current lenses, images shot at a 2x or even 3x digital zoom can look quite impressive.

Subsequently, if you don’t have a telephoto lens handy back off and try digital zoom. Better yet, order a shiny new telephoto or tele-zoom from your favorite dealer. Whatever you do, keep your distance, wear a mask and have fun!

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