Photos show the world's essential workers serving on the front lines

Their work was often unappreciated before, but they’re keeping society running during a crisis.

Photograph by Emin Ozmen, Magnum Photos
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Istanbul, Turkey

A city employee disinfects a street in Beyoglu, a tourist district empty of tourists.

Photograph by Emin Ozmen, Magnum Photos

The workers who now find themselves on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic have always been essential but we're just now noticing them. A worldwide health crisis forced us to realize that we depended on them—and that they're risking their lives. With the streets empty and much nonessential work stopped, we are finally seeing the faces of the people we need to survive.

Photographers also perform essential work, by showing us people we might not otherwise see—the fumigators working at night in Nairobi and the garbage collectors driving dark streets in Normandy. In South Africa, a photographer notices workers returning electricity to a poor neighborhood, while in Brazil, another finds a shopkeeper delivering groceries to his customers. In London, a doctor reads up on the coronavirus after a long shift, while just outside Paris, workers in a coffin factory double their production. (Learn about the new role played by paramedics and undertakers in France.)

How has our view of what constitutes vital work changed? National Geographic and Magnum Photos photographers bring you a global look at how coronavirus is affecting the worlds they see inside—and just outside—their windows.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has resulted in most Magnum photographers being restricted in their movements. As part of a broader photographer-led response, a new series “Diary of a Pandemic” will present selections of new work, while "Quarantine Conversations," will present Magnum photographers in frank and unedited dialogues about work, current affairs, and everything in-between. Follow Magnum Photos on Instagram.
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New York, New York

A grocery store worker in Brooklyn lays in a supply of paper towels during the early days of the pandemic.

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Athens, Greece

A man sells fruit on a deserted street. He told photographer Enri Canaj that he had to earn a living: "There's nothing else I can do."

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New York, New York

Mary Bolela, a nurse from Mississippi, volunteered to care for COVID-19 patients in New York. Assigned to the temporary hospital at Coler Campus on Roosevelt Island, she bought sodas for her colleagues while on break.

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Nesoddtangen, Norway

"My wife Anna is a doctor so she goes to work every day," says Jonas Bendiksen. "I photographed her as she was having her morning coffee and a well-deserved day of rest."

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Mojaleda works as a security officer in a shopping mall some six miles from his home. "It worries me to use public transportation at the moment," he says. "Because of the current restrictions, it has been more difficult to get there."

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Las Vegas, Nevada

"This is Steve, the postal worker who delivers mail to my parents' new home in Las Vegas," says photographer Daniella Zalcman. "Thankfully he has a route that allows him to remain in his truck and not interact with anyone while he's out working every day."

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Topanga, California

Raul Hernandez (left) and his father Ignacio Hernandez work on a house construction project. "Our neighbors worked at a restaurant and at a gym," says Ignacio. "They both lost their jobs. I feel really lucky we still have work."

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London, England

Nono takes a phone order at her father's Japanese cafe, where all the other workers have been furloughed. She spends most of the day doing schoolwork but sometimes her dad lets her help him.

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Itacaré, Brazil

The only Catholic church in town has been closed for more than three weeks but Father Ednaldo Cardoso has been offering spiritual advice via WhatsApp.

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Delhi-NCR, India

"The maintenance and security staff at our housing society have been working 24/7 to keep all of us safe and comfortable," says photographer Smita Sharma. "They fumigated the whole apartment complex while one of my neighbors watched the smoke from her balcony."

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Tepic, Mexico

Members of the band Revelacion Norteña play outside Tepic's cathedral. They used to perform at parties but since everything stopped they've been trying to earn money by playing on the streets.

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Florence, Italy

Leonardo Palloni is a butcher in Florence. With long lines at supermarkets, people are turning to small stores like his for their grocery shopping.

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Thokoza, South Africa

"We have been having a lot of power cuts," says photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa, "which has made it difficult for most people to social distance without electricity." These municipal workers are repairing a faulty cable.

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Bristol, England

Nurses join the clapping for National Health Service workers outside Bristol Royal Infirmary, a large teaching hospital.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Staff at this local supermarket in a Kuala Lumpur mall wear masks, face shields, and gloves for protection. Public hand sanitizers are strategically placed at checkouts while grocery cart handles are cleaned twice after each use.

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Chevilly-Larue, France

Since mid-March, workers at a casket manufacturer near Paris have doubled their daily production of coffins.

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Barcelona, Spain

During the lockdown, veterinarians only examine animals needing urgent treatment, including photographer Paolo Verzone's 15-year-old cat Panterino.

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New York, New York

A driver stops his bus outside East Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. New York City's public transit workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: At least 83 have died.

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Madrid, Spain

Photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero would like to thank all the pharmacists. "With their dedication and courage, they make it possible for us to buy masks, alcohol, disinfectants, and gloves."

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São Paulo, Brazil

Food delivery personnel wait for their packages at a small market in the Copan building, the largest residential building in Latin America.

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Paris, France

Psychiatrist Marc Windisch reads poems near the Eiffel Tower to comfort people.

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Nairobi, Kenya

Night time is the province of essential workers: the fire brigade, ambulance drivers, security guards, and fumigation teams, like this one.

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Topanga, California

Mike Bae, the owner of the General Store in Topanga Canyon, has provided his eight employees with masks, sanitizer, and gloves. He has experienced a surge in business since the pandemic began.

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Photojournalist Xanderleigh Dookey reports from an abandoned building that has become a home for people with nowhere else to go. "We are the eyes and ears of the people, even more so when our world is on lockdown," says photographer Gulshan Khan, who captured Dookey at work.

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Moscow, Russia

At a bakery, the face of a woman working behind the counter is reflected in the display case below.

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Regina, Canada

Photographer Sara Hylton was quarantined for two weeks after returning to Canada from India. During that time, her mother Lyn visited her everyday, bringing treats or the newspaper. "Even though we have yet to hug or touch, I am grateful to see my beautiful, healthy mother in the flesh," says Hylton. "My essential worker."

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Val-d'Oise, France

Essential yet disposable, these gloves were scattered across a parking lot near Paris.

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Normandy, France

Garbage collectors work while the streets are empty and the windows are shuttered.

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Coca Coast, Brazil

André runs a small convenience store with his wife. He's delivering orders to their customers so people won't crowd the tiny shop.

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London, England

Caroline Smith, an emergency doctor, studies coronavirus statistics at home.

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Krakow, Poland

A small production and design company called Yeti shifted their work to produce protective gear for local hospitals.

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Bergamo, Italy

An employee at the nearby cemetery is dressed for his somber job—dark suit, gloves, and a mask—although funerals have been banned in Italy.