‘Everybody’s got an important story to tell’

Longtime National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder has covered war, genocide, and other news events around the globe.

While David Guttenfelder was driving through Lake Mills, Iowa, he saw someone dressed as the Easter Bunny riding in the back of a car. He followed the car. The driver, Ona Van Heiden, was the head of a local Girl Scouts group. Since the annual Easter egg hunt had been canceled, she persuaded her son Treize to don a bunny costume and hand out Girl Scout cookies.

When the pandemic hit, I told my editors I’d go wherever they needed me—Italy, China, New York, any of the hot spots. Their response was, essentially, Easy, tiger. It’s not going to work like that anymore. Nobody was going anywhere. So I had to figure out what to do to contribute responsibly to a story that has affected everybody in the world. I soon realized it meant working in my own backyard, which for me means the Midwest. I started driving all over, sleeping some nights in my truck. I was looking for what the virus meant to people in “flyover country,” a part of the country that is often ignored.

I had to change the way I work. How do you photograph people from a distance? How do you enter people’s intimate spaces responsibly?

I began using a drone. I would call out to people and say, Hey, do you mind if I use my coronavirus social-distance flying camera to take your picture? Being Midwesterners, the response was usually, Do what you got to do. The drone, which I flew relatively low to the ground, allowed me to take pictures from a distance. But it also amplified the dystopian, surreal mood that we’re all grappling with now.

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