Photo of COVID-19 victim in Indonesia sparks fascination—and denial

Coronavirus victim wrapped in plastic shows what many didn’t want the populace to see.

Photojournalist Joshua Irwandi shadowed hospital workers in Indonesia, taking a striking image of a plastic-wrapped body of a COVID-19 victim while making sure not to reveal distinguishing characteristics, or even gender.

The image, taken for Nat Geo as part of a National Geographic Society grant, struck a chord in the nation of 270 million people. Indonesia had been slow to fight the global pandemic, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo touting an unproven herbal remedy in March. Some of the reactions to Irwandi’s image, which humanized the suffering from the virus, have been hostile.

Irwandi’s photograph has been displayed on television news and shared by the spokesperson for the nation’s coronavirus response team. The image was widely screen-grabbed and republished without Irwandi’s consent by Indonesian media. More than 340,000 people have “liked” the image on his Instagram page, which he posted after the Nat Geo story published on July 14. More than 1 million people also liked it in its first few hours on Nat Geo's Instagram.

“It’s clear that the power of this image has galvanized discussion about coronavirus,” Irwandi said from his home in Indonesia. “We have to recognize the sacrifice, and the risk, that the doctors and nurses are making.”

There’s no question the photograph broke through, agreed Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Center of Photography: “Here we have a mummified person. It makes you look at it, feel terror.”

At the same time, there is distance, Ritchin said. “To me, the image was of someone being thrown out, discarded, wrapped in cellophane, sprayed with disinfectant, mummified, dehumanized, othered ... It makes sense in a way. People have othered people with the virus because they don’t want to be anywhere near the virus.”

After Irwandi posted the photograph, a popular singer with a massive following accused the photographer of fabricating the news, said COVID-19 wasn’t so dangerous, and opined that a photojournalist shouldn’t be allowed to take a photograph in a hospital if the family could not see the victim. The singer’s followers erroneously charged Irwandi with setting up the photo with a mannequin, and called him “a slave” of the World Health Organization. The 28-year-old photographer's ethics were questioned by the government this week, which also suggested the name of the hospital, which was not disclosed in the photograph, should be revealed, CNN Indonesia reported.

”Details of my private life have been published without my permission,“ Irwandi said. ”We’ve gone really astray from the photojournalistic intent of my photograph.“

However, he has gotten support from the nation’s association of photojournalists. They countered that the image met journalistic standards—and demanded the singer apologize, which he subsequently did.

Irwandi says some government officials have said the nation should take COVID-19 more seriously. As of Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker had reported 4,320 COVID-19 deaths and 89,869 cases from Indonesia, although the count is believed to be vastly underreported. Many people aren’t practicing social distancing, and hordes have not been wearing masks. Large-scale social restrictions began fading last month.

His hope is that the image encourages Indonesians to take precautions—and save lives. He cited a challenge to photojournalists given in May by Harvard professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis: to move beyond statistics and show how COVID-19 is affecting people. Other photographers, such as Lynsey Addario, have been motivated to do the same thing. (Addario also has been supported by a National Geographic Society fund for COVID-19 reporting.)

So, what are Irwandi’s next steps?

He paused a moment.

“I think I’m going to stay low for a time,” he said.

Editor's Note: On June 11, 2021, Joshua Irwandi was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the breaking news photography category for his work on this topic. 

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