‘I put my camera to my face and cried.’ Documenting a COVID-19 hot spot

Photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier witnessed the strength and courage of people affected by the coronavirus—and fell ill with COVID-19 himself.

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Deontaye Clay sings a gospel hymn at the funeral of Chester Lovett, who died of COVID-19 in Detroit. Kenny Alexander accompanies him while wearing a respirator.
This story appears in the October 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I took some 10,000 photos during the 12 days I spent in Detroit documenting the impact that the novel coronavirus had on the city’s people. I went everywhere, as carefully as I could. City buses that workers depended on to get to and from the jobs they couldn’t afford to give up. Houses and apartments where people lived and loved despite illnesses and job losses that threatened their well-being. Funerals where family members had to take turns saying goodbye to their loved ones—no more than 10 people allowed to gather at a time.

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Ten. That happens to be the number of children that Chester Lovett had. The Marine veteran and former mail carrier also had a mother, grandchildren, brothers, nieces and nephews, and countless others who loved him. Yet the 59-year-old died in a hospital without any of them by his side. That’s the way it was then.

His funeral was heart wrenching and beautiful. For me, his family’s palpable grief was made worse knowing that the virus wouldn’t have overwhelmed people of color if the United States treated its Black and brown citizens equitably. Instead, COVID-19 was sickening and killing them at disproportionate rates.

Lovett’s relatives couldn’t share the service together. They had to rotate in and out. His brother Jerry spoke eloquently about what a great family and community man Lovett was. Other family members wrote loving tributes, some made light with humor. They all talked about how gentle and caring he had been. Like me, he loved to travel.

I photographed Deontaye Clay, an employee of the Wilson—Akins Funeral Home, as he sang a soul-stirring rendition of the gospel hymn “Oh to Be Kept by Jesus.” Kenny Alexander accompanied Clay while wearing a respirator, a visible sign of the danger faced simply by playing an organ at a funeral.

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Danny Wilcox Frazier photographs Thomas Ferra and Sarah Smith in the motel room where they’ve lived since Smith lost her job.

As the funeral director prepared to close the casket, some of Lovett’s children gathered nearby, while others remained in their seats, separate but united. It was such an emotionally heavy scene. I put my camera to my face and cried. In 20 years of making photographs, I’ve never done that.

Afterward, a marine marched up the aisle to begin the military’s ceremonial goodbye. She saluted Lovett’s casket as another marine played taps on a bugle, the sobering sound coming clearly from outside. The two service members folded an American flag and presented it to Lovett’s mother.

Outside, the family gathered around as best they could while Jerry Lovett released a dove to the sky, a symbol of his brother being released to heaven. I saw it also as a sign of hope rising from tragedy—hope for the family, for the city, for our nation. The funeral ceremony was as powerful and painful as anything I’ve ever seen.

I returned home to Iowa a few days later, exhausted after 16- to 18-hour workdays. But I felt confident that I had a collection of photographs that told Detroit’s story of resilience in the midst of tragedy and showed what it looks like when our nation leaves so many of its citizens defenseless against a pandemic. (See Frazier’s photographs of Detroit’s fight against COVID-19.)

I’d been careful while shooting—always wearing protective gear, disinfecting equipment before and after photographing, washing clothes daily, and not putting my camera equipment down anywhere. Even so, I quarantined in an Airbnb that my wife, Lydia, found near one of our town’s hospitals.

I moved in there on a Tuesday. I was careful then too. I wore an N95 mask when I went outside, even while climbing the stairs that led to my temporary home.

By Thursday, I noticed that I was breathing more heavily than usual. I thought nothing of it. I figured the mask and the long stairs were taking a toll.

By Saturday, I was congested and coughing. My nose ran; my muscles ached. Darn seasonal allergies, I thought. But the usual medicines didn’t work. I napped during the day but couldn’t sleep at night. I must have a stubborn version of the seasonal flu, I explained to my wife and my editor. I still suspected flu when the symptoms morphed and everything I ate ran through me. (Here’s what coronavirus does to the body.)

On Monday I finally called my doctor. Based on my symptoms, she thought I had COVID-19. If my fever hit 102.5, she told me, I had to go to the hospital.

I’d just spent two weeks covering people sick or dead from the virus, and I never suspected I had it. I thought I’d taken extra precautions.

On Tuesday I pushed through a long editing session of the Detroit photographs. Afterward my temperature climbed: 100, 100.5, 101.5, 101.8. I didn’t want to go to the hospital. The very idea made me anxious. I knew too many people like Lovett, people who had gone into the hospital and had died.

As bad as I felt physically, I felt even worse emotionally. I thought I’d let my family down: I’d promised them I wouldn’t get sick. I thought I’d let my subjects down too, and my editor at National Geographic, who had trusted me with the assignment and outfitted me with plenty of protective gear.

My temperature topped out at 101.8.

On Wednesday I fell asleep while on hold with the doctor’s office. When I woke up more than an hour later, my phone lying next to me, I was as sweat soaked as if I’d just finished a long workout. My fever had broken. But other symptoms lingered a couple of weeks longer: low energy, muscle weakness, headaches.

I knew the risks of going to Detroit. Even now I think it was worth it. It was worth the risk to tell the stories of people like the workers at the Motor City Mitten Mission who, despite the virus, never stopped delivering food to people hungry for it.

It was worth the risk to tell the story of Tiyea Jackson and his family, who were living in a motel because Jackson had been laid off from an auto parts supplier that shut down during the pandemic. They were so low on funds that the Mitten Mission had to pay their bill, yet at night they talked and laughed and read Bible verses together. They could have lost all hope, but they didn’t.

It was especially worth the risk to tell the story of the Lovett children, who lost their father in such a painful way but were held together by the love they shared with him.

My experience in Detroit affirmed what I believe: that whatever hardships we face, we will make it through if we come together as families, as communities, as states, and as a nation that cares about all of its people. Not just the wealthiest. That’s my greatest fear—that we will become a nation where only the wealthiest survive and thrive.

Danny Wilcox Frazier’s photographs of the pandemic appeared in the National Geographic online dispatch “Detroit’s winning spirit helps it fight back against COVID-19.” That article was written by Cassandra Spratling, a veteran of the Detroit Free Press. Frazier is fully recovered from his bout with COVID-19.