As the Weekly’s photographer, I’ve been trying to access hospitals since March when the Covid-19 pandemic hit locally. I was allowed to photograph doctors working in adjacent triage tents, but was denied access inside hospitals—partially because of the lack of personal protective equipment available nationwide, when health workers had to reserve every piece of it.
But the pandemic didn’t stop, and my requests didn’t stop. This month, I finally got the OK to visit Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital and Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. There were parameters that I had to follow: I had to wear a mask, I was not allowed in patients’ rooms, I could not photograph room numbers or take any photos that could identify a patient.
To my surprise, when I entered the Covid-19 unit at SVMH, it was calm, unlike photographs from places like New York and Italy. It was quiet. Nurses ending their shift seemed tired, but not overwhelmed. On-shift nurses would gown up and check each patient every hour or two. In front of each room was a station, with a desk and a computer where they would monitor a patient’s vitals.
Even in the still evening, I felt the magnitude of what I was photographing. Unconscious patients were on ventilators—still, but fighting for their lives.
Journalists can make phone calls, FaceTime and send emails to talk to our sources, but when a story is this important, we need to wade into the field and witness what we are covering.
While many of my colleagues were setting up their home offices at the start of the pandemic, I was coming up with routines for how I would keep myself and the people I photographed safe. I read tips from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Poynter, National Press Photographers Association and other resources to try to find the best practices.
I always wear a mask if I am going to be indoors or within six feet of anyone. I wipe down my camera gear frequently and if I’ve been on an assignment and think my clothes may have gotten contaminated, I put them in the laundry when I get home and take a shower.
Normally I would ask to spend some time in the home or business of a person I’m photographing because details from those spaces create more intimate images. But part of the rules I’ve created for myself are that if I can get what I need photographing outside, to stay outside.
Photojournalists have had to find ways to stay far enough away from a subject but close enough to accurately tell the story. At the beginning of the pandemic, many resorted to photographing through windows—something we did in the weeks immediately after shelter-in-place began.
I’ve thought through dangerous scenarios I might encounter on the job. I’m comfortable knowing that I won’t always be safe, a quality I think is common among photojournalists.
But working in a pandemic is especially difficult, where we are putting the people we photograph at risk simply by doing our job. And it’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with. For now, all I can do is continue to work with people to minimize risk, to do the work of documenting the pandemic’s toll.
This week’s cover story features photographs from inside two Monterey County hospitals (Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital and Community Hospital). These images portray how Covid-19 is impacting us all, particularly our healthcare system.
-Parker Seibold, staff photographer, email@example.com