Photograph by Cédric Gerbehaye
Photograph by Cédric Gerbehaye
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How COVID-19 changed our photography

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

J’ai peur,” the patient said. “I’m afraid.”

The nurse took the patient’s hands, leaned in close, and said: I’m scared, too.

She and her team were testing nearly 150 Belgians on that day alone, many of them among the nation’s oldest—with a higher likelihood of dying from the virus. Afterward, when the nurse turned to photographer Cédric Gerbehaye, accompanying her on this day, her voice was thick in a way that stays with him still; she sounded broken, tough, grieving, and furious, all at once.

"No one else can come close to these people,” she told him. “If I don’t do this, who will?"

Cédric’s moment with the nurse shows what the best photographers can capture just by being there. Today I’ll show you images on how the pandemic has changed people around the world—from those in hospitals and nursing homes in Belgium (above) to the crowded alleyways of Kenya’s capital (below). In both places, a photographer was there, marking history.

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The pandemic has accelerated a change for National Geographic, too. As Todd James, a senior photo editor here for over 20 years, notes: “For most of our first century of publication we would dispatch photographers from Washington, D.C., to the far-flung corners of the Earth to tell surprising stories.”

But this was impossible during COVID.

Instead, we intensified a move already underway in recent years, turning to photographers around the world. They would tell the story of how this pandemic was upending life closer to home. “It demonstrates the power of National Geographic in our second century of publication to tell richer, more nuanced stories,” James says.

In the image above, Nairobi-based photographer Nichole Sobecki shows how a group of determined young dancers in the city develop a workaround when their studio is closed for quarantine. Eugene Ochieng, 12, and his colleagues turn an alley into a ballet floor, and their “instruction” comes from a dance coach on a borrowed cell phone, turned horizontal and propped up on stilts.

The following are images from Cédric in Belgium, Moises Saman in Jordan, Muhammad Fadli in Indonesia, and Wayne Lawrence in Detroit and New Orleans—photographers who gained access and trust from the people, many of them from their own backyards, whom they photographed.

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The swab: Talk about a universal moment in 2020. Brow furrowed, a nursing home patient recoils as he is tested for the coronavirus in Belgium. Reluctantly, a nurse in PPE restrains the man, who doesn’t know why the test is required. Belgium is undergoing a steep rise again in COVID-19 cases—and considering another lockdown.

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Expansion: In this public cemetery in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, land has been cleared solely for COVID-19 victims. Crosses mark the Christian plots; Muslim graves are grouped together beneath pillar-like markers. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, is home to 13 percent of the world’s Muslims. Slow to acknowledge the toll of the coronavirus, Indonesia has reported steady increases in cases since August.

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Lined up: Following social distancing guidelines, masked Syrian refugee women in the Jordanian desert space themselves apart and in lines ahead of UNICEF donations—hygiene kits and other necessities. Their families live in a crowded tent settlement, and are among hundreds of thousands of refugees in the nation. The country’s pandemic curfews and economic downturn have hit the refugees especially hard. Reported coronavirus cases have been on the rise the past month in Jordan, too.

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45 years: Photographer Wayne Lawrence works on spending time within communities, gaining trust. This portrait is of Elaine Fields, who had been married to Eddie Fields for 45 years when Eddie died from COVID-19 complications in April in Detroit. African Americans have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19, and a recent poll says 4 of 10 Black adults say they know someone who has died of the virus, nearly double the rate for white people.

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Not as festive: New Orleans resident Debra “MidNight” Washington, from one of the city’s beloved social clubs, dons finery to welcome back a member who survived COVID-19. The festivities are more somber than usual, though: Club founder Ronald Lewis, 68, died from the virus in March. Subscribers can see more images in our full story.

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Today in a minute

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The Hall of Fame: Photographer Lynsey Addario (above), a frequent Nat Geo contributor, is among this year’s seven inductees into the International Photography Hall of Fame. Photographer of the American West Robert Adams, conceptual photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and fashion photographer Hiro also will be honored in a virtual ceremony on October 30. Henry Diltz, who covered Woodstock and shot more than 250 classic rock album covers, including iconic images of The Doors, Grateful Dead, and Crosby Stills & Nash, won the St. Louis museum’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Meanwhile: Nadia Hallgren, Deana Lawson, and Lindsey Peoples Wagner are being honored for their contributions to youth culture by the International Center of Photography. Hallgren is the director of the Michelle Obama documentary Becoming, Lawson is a photographer and visual artist, and Peoples Wagner is the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue. More information on the free event on October 27 here.

From flip flops to art: Along Kenya’s Kiwayu beach, a group of mothers saw the flip-flops that washed up along the shore. They began transforming the trash into colorful toys for their children. That turned into a social enterprise called Ocean Sole Africa, which supports families while cleaning the sea. Photographer Paddy Dowling has profiled the nonprofit, which has become a lifeline for people gathering the flip flops or making art from them. Many of the artists are experienced woodcarvers who lost work when deforestation of mahogany and ebony was outlawed. The art goes to 33 countries.

Your Instagram of the day

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Seeking justice: The struggle to get justice for Breonna Taylor, fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police, has brought together people nationwide. Several have been profiled by photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, including Jamila (above), who did not want to give her last name. Speaking at a memorial to Taylor after weeks of protest, Jamila said: “Mentally, I’m a little drained, but I am looking to be the change I want to see. Even the small things that I do can affect change.”

Related: ‘It was a modern-day lynching’: Violent deaths reflect a brutal American legacy

The big takeaway

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Humanity > COVID-19: In examining a world restricted and changed from the pandemic, the upcoming National Geographic magazine also found people determined to build connection and show lovingkindness. After two months of separation, Mary Grace Sileo (pictured above left) and her daughter, Michelle Grant, hung a clothesline, pinned a drop cloth to it—and were able to embrace through the plastic. Subscribers can read and see how people are trying to avoid COVID-19 and still move on with life.

In a few words

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stoneon travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

The last glimpse

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On the ride: A wistful memory of commuting may have sent our senior photo archivist, Sara Manco, back a century to pluck this photograph from the archives. Harry A. Lawton’s image, from the October 1919 issue of National Geographic, shows riders on a third-class coach in Culiacán, in Mexico’s western state of Sinaloa. It’s among 14 curated Nat Geo images of Mexico through the years. To Manco, the scene “speaks to the crowded nature of travel, explaining that people sat wherever they could find a spot, including windowsills. This image reminds me of the chaos of commuting, something I haven’t seen or experienced since COVID hit."

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this, and Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!