13 Photographers on Capturing Hope Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

It’s a painful and stressful time, but in the midst of devastating loss and uncertainty, photographers around the world are finding reasons to be hopeful.

“In the past, I’ve covered historic events such as Maoist Insurgency, the massive earthquake in 2015, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nepal-based photojournalist Narendra Shrestha tells us. “For the first time in my career, I’m facing a new kind of challenge. This is something I have no reference point for. It’s something I never imagined would happen in my lifetime, and I am learning every day.”

So much about this pandemic is unprecedented, from the exponential spike in disease to the response from leading researchers and scientists. It’s a historic event on both a national and global scale.

The hope can be found on the balconies of Italy and Tel Aviv, in the streets of Morocco and London, and beyond. For some, it all comes down to a momentous occasion of strength and unity. For others, it’s something smaller and more subtle, like a glance shared between two people.

“As a photojournalist, I feel it is my responsibility to give people some kind of positive message and convey any rays of hope I can grasp,” Shrestha says. “When I share positive photos, people comment about how it’s helped them find peace and positivity amid the pandemic. In turn, reading those comments, I find myself at peace.”

We interviewed thirteen extraordinary photojournalists about some of their most powerful images, and asked for their insights on staying safe during this period. Read on for their stories.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A man’s innovation and willingness to comply to safety rules at the onset of the pandemic. Image via Mosa’ab Elshamy/​AP/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II camera, Canon 24-70mm f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 24mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f2.4; ISO 50.

Mosa’ab Elshamy: I took this photo on March 18th, a few days after the coronavirus outbreak in Morocco and the announcement of emergency lockdown orders. Coffee shops, schools, cinemas, mosques, and other public spaces had been ordered to shut to prevent the spread, and there was a deep sense of uncertainty on the streets.

I went to the Medina of Rabat, a usually bustling bazaar with vendors, shops, and a lot of movement. It had turned into a ghost town, with very few traders around. One of those few vendors was Abderrahim, a fifty-five-year-old man who sold cigarettes, tissue paper, and snacks on the street. He had created a makeshift mask made of fig leaves, and, as soon as I saw him, I knew I had to approach him and ask for a photo. We exchanged a few words, and he kindly agreed to be photographed.

I was struck by the swiftness and innovation on his part. Face masks weren’t readily available at the moment, and he had to do something to protect himself. The leaves might not do much, but his willingness to do his part, and use the tiny measures available to him, was something that stayed with me. I was glad to see the image become used as a sign of resilience, hope, and dignity in the face of this global pandemic.

Learn more about Mosa’ab Elshamy: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A man provides hope and inspiration during trying times. Image via Christophe Petit Tesson/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon DX MkII camera, Canon 24-105mm lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f4; ISO 2000.

Christophe Petit Tesson: I was very excited when I heard someone speak about a tenor singer who was serenading his street every day at 7:00 PM from his window — each time with a different opera piece. By chance, a friend of mine lived on the same street as this singer, and I found the address on the second or third day of this performance.

I arrived on a very typical-looking street in the 9th district of Paris, not far from Place de Clichy. A few minutes before, the singer’s neighbors were already in place, waiting at their windows or balconies and ready to be a part of the performance. At exactly 7:00 PM, Stéphane Sénéchal opened his window and started to fill the street with his amazing voice. This evening, he chose a Spanish opera piece to pay tribute to the Spanish medical employees working during the crisis.

In early March, the sunset comes early, and the warm yellow light of his flat contrasted perfectly with the half-dark shadow of the street. Some pedestrians returning home from work or shopping, stopped along the way to listen and enjoyed the pure magic of the moment.

Learn more about Christophe Petit Tesson: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

The “Clap for NHS” is taking place in neighborhoods all over the UK. Image via Nils Jorgensen/​Shutterstock. Gear: Nikon D500 camera, AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; exposure 1/20 sec; f3.5; ISO 12800.

Nils Jorgensen: When I go for a walk or do my shopping, I photograph what I see around me. In this case, I wanted to photograph the “Clap for NHS” event, which was happening in every street all over the UK. I decided to do the simplest and safest thing, which was to photograph my own neighbors on my own street.

At 8:00 PM, I wandered up and down taking pictures. I met neighbors I’d not spoken to before, which was nice. I had the images published in a leading international paper the next day, and I later showed it around. As a result of the experience, I made new connections with people, which I’d not otherwise have done.

Learn more about Nils Jorgensen: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

The CEP program provides free meals to enrolled students in the Oklahoma City school districts. Image via Sue Ogrocki/​AP/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon 1DX camera, 70-200mm lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f7.1; ISO 1250.

Sue Ogrocki: The Oklahoma City Public Schools are a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) school district. The CEP program allows schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch, at no cost, to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

The need for meals isn’t going away with COVID-19. Unemployment in Oklahoma is growing as COVID-19-related closures and declines in the oil industry put more people out of work. The need to supply food to people is even greater.

Gregoria Salazar, the woman in the photo, usually works in the school kitchen to provide food for the children at her school. She continues to help feed those students even though they are out of classes due to the virus. Every story needs faces. She can be the face of this part of the story.

Do you have any tips for photographers right now?

Sue Ogrocki: Photojournalists, in general, have a sense that they are invincible. We think, incorrectly, that somehow the camera protects us. I have to ignore that thought and do my best to stay safe and keep others safe, too. The only advice I can offer to other photojournalists at this time is to make sure they stay safe. We have to take the CDC precautions to heart and follow them. Every day. Wash your hands!

Learn more about Sue Ogrocki: Website. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

Two workers tailoring protective masks in Tehran. Image via Morteza Nikoubazl/​SIPA/​Shutterstock. Gear: Fujifilm X-H1 camera, Fujinon 50-140mm f:2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 74.4mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f4.5; ISO 800.

Morteza Nikoubazl: When someone told me about this place in Tehran — where people were making protective masks and garments for The Iranian Red Crescent Society — I expected to see a large, modern factory with a lot of machines and robots. When I entered the building, however, I realized that it was not a giant factory, but a workshop.

I took this particular photo after a close-up portrait of one of the tailors. The worker on the left was looking directly at the camera with a curious look, but after a few minutes, he returned to work.

The background wall in this photo was painted in a traditional Iranian turquoise color, and the flowers created an interesting tableau. The hair covers and face masks worn by the two workers created a striking contrast between this romantic wall painting and the ongoing global tragedy.

Learn more about Morteza Nikoubazl: Website.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A young woman sits on a train in Bangladesh, reading about our new reality. Image via Monirul Alam/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, EF 35mm Canon lens. Settings: Exposure 1/15 sec; f2.0; ISO 1600.

Monirul Alam: While I was covering the local situation in Bangladesh one day, I made my way to the Kamlapur train station where thousands of people were leaving Dhaka to return to their villages. I always look at people’s eyes and try to understand what they’re thinking. I saw this girl sitting on the train, reading the daily newspaper and absorbing the reality of our new situation.

Three or four days later, I visited the same train station. It was almost empty, save for a few railway guards. It was silent, and I stood there taking pictures of the vast emptiness. As I did this, I heard some sparrows begin to sing. For me, their song represented life and hope for the future.   

What are your tips for photographers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Monirul Alam: As a photojournalist, remember not to panic or put too much pressure on yourself. Our mental health is more important than ever in this kind of situation. Don’t force yourself to work long hours. We all need occasional breaks to cope with what we’re seeing.

Learn more about Monirul Alam: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

Two women show support from their balcony to those fighting the coronavirus. Image via Clauda Greco/​AGF/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, 70-200 mm lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f4; ISO 1250.

Claudia Greco: This photo was taken in Milan a few weeks ago. It was during a stage when people were reacting to the emergency by showing solidarity between communities and showing support for those who were and still are fighting and suffering in connection to the virus.

People met every day at 6:00 PM to sing along and play instruments, or just make some noise from their windows and balconies. It was a moment of joy, and you could clearly see the sense of community. When I took this photo, it was the first day after I spent seven days at home because I was not feeling great. I was looking forward to witnessing this moment, as I had spent the previous days reading in the news about it.

After a couple of days, people stopped doing it. I think because the death toll keeps growing, especially in this region. I guess I will remember this day as the only time where I was able to see this particular side of this story.

Learn more about Claudia Greco: Website. Instagram.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A man and his dog ride the streets of London on a bicycle. Image via Peter Macdiarmid/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 400 mm f/2.8 L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/1250 sec; f2.8; ISO 800.

Peter Macdiarmid: This image was captured after I drove past this man cycling with his dog whilst out on an early morning assignment, in south London. I was able to pull over and get my camera out, just in time for him to pass me. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, I am constantly on the lookout for interesting and different ways to illustrate how life continues during lockdown. I really like the two unusual elements in this photograph — i.e. the face mask and the man cycling with his dog.

Life for news photographers is certainly different right now. For one thing, here in London there is very little traffic. It’s like driving very early on a Sunday morning — but every day. 

Learn more about Peter Macdiarmid: Website. Instagram. Twitter. Facebook.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A Buddhist monk prays for coronavirus victims. Image via Narendra Shrestha/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock. Gear: EOS 1DX camera, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.

Narendra Shrestha: Nepal reported one coronavirus case in early February 2020, just as the crisis was spreading slowly around the world. I had been documenting COVID-19 from the very beginning, and I had received information that around 500 Buddhist monks would be conducting a mass prayer for coronavirus victims, wearing their traditional attire.

The prayer was meant for coronavirus victims, but, to my surprise, I could see hundreds of monks sitting together in mass and offering the prayer. During that time, I had two feelings: First, I wondered if Nepal was relatively safe from COVID-19, or if we didn’t yet have enough awareness.

In the meantime, my eyes were drawn to a group of monks who were chanting prayers while wearing masks. That specific moment gave me a sign of hope and peace during the pandemic. I framed this photo from a height, using a long focal length with a shallow depth of field so that viewers can only see the praying hands and mask. This image might be symbolic of global suffering, but it’s also a symbol of hope and peace. It’s a testament to the capacity of humankind to cope with difficult situations.

Learn more about Narendra Shrestha: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A family, on a balcony in Tel Aviv, sends hope into the world through music. Image via Abir Sultan/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, 70-200mm lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/1000 sec; f4; ISO 1600.

Abir Sultan: I took this photo of a family dancing while a saxophonist performed on a roof in Basel Square, Tel Aviv. On a personal level, this crisis has not been easy at all. I walk around a lot in infected areas, and I worry about myself, even though I am very strict about hygiene.

In moments like this, it’s easy for photographers to experience psychological stress, and I’ve never covered anything like this before. I’m trying to get used to it and analyze what’s happening, while working very hard to tell this story and show how it affects people every day. Amidst it all, however, there have been hopeful moments like this one.

Learn more about Abir Sultan: Website. Instagram. Twitter.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A couple wearing masks embrace on the streets of Hong Kong. Image via Kevin On Man Lee/​Penta Press/​Shutterstock. Gear: EOS 1DX II camera, Canon 70-200L IS F4 lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/640 sec; f4; ISO 800.

Kevin On Man Lee: This was Valentine’s Day in Hong Kong, and I went into the street to look for young people celebrating. Because of the COVID-19 outbreaks, the street was pretty empty, so it was difficult to encounter a couple like this. I got lucky. The fact that they embraced each other with their masks on touched me.

What’s it been like for you to document this crisis?

Kevin On Man Lee: Hong Kongers have been going through a lot of pain over the last year, with the introduction of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill and the protests that followed. The coronavirus crisis followed right after that, so Hong Kong is experiencing major hardship. Therefore, I do what a photographer should do: I record our history and tell the stories of how we deal with it. I believe that recording daily life shows the courage of ordinary people.

Learn more about Kevin On Man Lee: Website. Instagram. Twitter. Facebook.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

A moment of intimacy between a couple on a bench in New York. Image via William Volcov/​Shutterstock. Gear: Canon 6D Mark II camera, 70-200mm lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/640 sec; f4; ISO 800.

William Volcov: I spent a few hours photographing different parts of New York City — all empty. When I was finishing up for the day, I saw a couple, both wearing masks. I wanted to express this moment of romance. Even with all the pain the virus has caused, there is still love in New York.

What’s it been like for you to document this crisis?

William Volcov: In 2016, I covered the Zika virus in Brazil, but that was more straightforward in many ways because I knew how to eliminate mosquitoes and clean houses. These days, I have been taking pictures of empty places and people wearing masks, feeling afraid.

That fear is a constant reminder of the care I have to take when covering this particular virus. Any photographer who wants to do this type of coverage must respect the space of everyone they’re photographing and follow all the cleaning requirements for their hands, face, and camera equipment.

Learn more about William Volcov: Instagram. Twitter. Facebook.

What’s the Story Behind this Photo?

Swiss singer Amandine sings for inspiration to her neighbors from her balcony. Image via Laurent Gilliéron/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock. Gear: Nikon D5 camera, 24-70mm 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1/50 sec; f4; ISO 200.

Laurent Gilliéron: In a radio interview, the Swiss singer Amandine announced that she was going to sing for her neighbors from her balcony. I immediately contacted her via Facebook, as I wanted to photograph this mini-concert in order to show a positive story amid the flow of bad news.

Amandine gave me all the details, so I was in the street in front of her balcony at the agreed time. After a few pictures from the street, I wanted to show a more intimate angle, so she allowed me to come to her apartment during her performance and photograph the event from the singer’s point of view.

It is these brief encounters and unforgettable memories that can enliven and enrich us during this pandemic. This was a relatively rare, joyful moment in my daily life, as a photojournalist during this crisis.

What’s it been like for you to document this crisis?

Laurent Gilliéron: In the midst of this upheaval, professionals in the media are struggling, and at the same time, the public needs to be informed with accurate information. Documenting something like this requires an endless commitment from photojournalists, journalists, and video journalists.

The time spent in the field is important, but it is only the tip of the iceberg because most of what we do as photojournalists is invisible. We spend hours on the phone, behind the computer writing emails, having virtual meetings, and more. The world is battling an unprecedented health crisis, and we are there to provide the public with useful and accurate information. This is our daily challenge.

Learn more about Laurent Gilliéron: Website. Instagram. Twitter. Gilliéron is deputy chief photographer of the Swiss agency Keystone-SDA.

Cover image via Narendra Shrestha/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock.

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