The photograph that shocked a nation
By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
A single photograph still has the power to galvanize—politicians, the public, an entire country.
In the current issue of the magazine, we published a picture (above) of the body of a suspected COVID-19 victim in an Indonesian hospital, wrapped in layers of plastic and disinfectant to prevent the spread of the virus. The response to the image was immediate, particularly in a nation that has played down the effects of the pandemic. Since Joshua Irwandi posted his photograph on his Instagram page, nearly 350,000 people have liked the image. More than one million people liked the image its first day on Nat Geo’s Instagram page.
“Visualization is a powerful tool—it can help us more deeply understand the severity of the situation as we work to curb the virus,” writes Harvard art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis. Such images, throughout history, have moved people to act in moments of injustice and crisis. “But the visuals we need most in this time are difficult to come by.”
She cited an image by National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz of the mass COVID-19 burials on Hart Island in New York City, the city’s public cemetery (below). Steinmetz didn't have long to shoot before the NYPD confiscated his drone. “In an act of, I would say, real vision and bravery,” says Lewis, he “was attempting to show us the human cost of COVID."
In the United Kingdom, photographer Lynsey Addario was trying desperately to do the same thing. “Nightly newscasters catalogued the mounting numbers of infected and dead, but there were very few visuals to illustrate the toll,” writes Lynsey. “The pandemic felt sanitized.”
She photographed funerals and funeral homes (below) and eventually gained access to hospitals, believing that images of coronavirus victims could “force the public to take the lockdown seriously and hold leaders of various nations accountable for their response."
Previously, the photographs of two drowned migrant children—a 3-year-old boy on a Turkish beach in 2015 and a Salvadoran girl, not yet 2, on the banks of the Rio Grande last year—provoked widespread outrage, but no lasting changes on immigration policy, writes Susan Ager for Nat Geo.
Such images, however, have made governments squeamish, or worse. In Indonesia, Josh Irwandi has faced harsh criticism, and his credibility as a photographer has been called into question. He’s not alone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “governments in the region, from Cambodia to the Philippines, have harassed and even jailed journalists who have been critical of their crisis response.”
For Josh, “the photograph has served its purpose in raising awareness and galvanizing a dialogue on the pandemic,” he writes. And now, “I need to disappear for the time being, after shocking the nation.”
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Your Instagram photo of the day
All the way from Greenland: Arctic surfer Lena Stoffel takes to the water off Norway’s Lofoten Islands. The small bay of Unstad has all the elements to make it a perfect place for Arctic surfing. Long, regular waves travel here uninterruptedly from Greenland. “But the really special thing is that we’re utterly alone in the water here,” Stoffel says. “It’s just us, our boards, and the vastness of nature all around us.”
Related: Great Lakes surfing is big in the winter. But can it survive climate change?
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Today in a minute
Witness: “I am 80 years old, and I still cry.” That’s what one of America’s youngest Holocaust survivors told us earlier this year. Photographer Robert Clark lovingly captured Jennine Burk’s image as we sought words of wisdom from those who participated in World War II and suffered its horrors. Burk, who hid from the Nazis in Brussels during the war, was orphaned and later adopted by a U.S. family. She lived the rest of her life in New Orleans, the Cresent City Jewish News reported.
Teamwork: Hundreds of photographers joined forces on Wednesday to shoot free headshots of 10,000 unemployed Americans, PetaPixel reported. The effort is to help those suffering from the COVID-19-ravaged economy. The organizer, the Headshot Booker website, hoped the initiative would spur other photographers to donate their time. All of Wednesday’s participants got a professional headshot to update resumes and LinkedIn profiles, the website said.
Road trips: Long before quarantines, photographer Arnaud Montagard captured an America seemingly emptied of its inhabitants. The images—an abandoned cabin, vacant diner booths, a paper cup smushed under of an old car—make up The Road Not Taken, his new book. The 29-year-old French-born, Brooklyn-living photographer told the Guardian that his journey though less-traveled roads in America evoke loneliness and “a sense of nostalgia for a period I never lived through."
Remembering John: In January, Magnum photographer Danny Lyon made this intimate portrait of civil rights leader John Lewis, who passed away last week, at home in bed. It was Lewis who encouraged Lyon to continue photographing the civil rights movement after they met in the 1960s in Cairo, Illinois. The two went on to share a decades-long friendship, and even roomed together. “I was so afraid that one night I would get up and go in to brush my teeth, and I thought I would pick up the wrong fluid,” said Lewis, recalling how Lyon transformed their bathroom into a makeshift darkroom.
The big takeaway
New challenge: The world’s largest falcon hasn’t needed to leave the Arctic in the winter, hunting down prey in the darkened, chillier north. Now the gyrfalcon’s year-round home is the fastest-warming region on Earth. As other birds move north to escape warmer temperatures, the little-known gyrfalcon (pictured above), one of the region’s most vulnerable species, can’t go farther north, as Douglas Main and Kiliii Yüyan discover for Nat Geo. Pictured, below left: These gyrfalcon chicks are about 25 days old and ready to be banded by biologists so they can be identified in the future. At right, the youngsters are not immune to swarms of mosquitoes that arise during the heat of the summer. Scientists worry that avian diseases like West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes, could migrate north as the area warms.
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 Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.
The last glimpse
How did the ‘first pitch’ begin? President William Howard Taft was having a bad day. Taft had gotten hissed at at a suffrage rally, and was headed to the ballpark, where he would make history. That 1910 day, he became the first president to throw out the first pitch on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day (above left). After breathless coverage, Taft returned the following year—and a tradition was born, writes Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever. This year’s first pitch in Washington, D.C., came last night from respected public health leader (and baseball fan) Dr. Anthony Fauci (pictured, above right). Back in 1910, Taft had a last-minute changeup: He tossed the ball not to the catcher, but to star Washington pitcher Walter Johnson. “Suddenly the President shifted his position and aimed at me,” the surprised Johnson recalled, “and his aim was very good.”
Related: These timeless Nat Geo photos take you to a different place