Photojournalism during the pandemic
Like many professions, much of the work necessary to operate The Buffalo News’ print and digital news platforms is being done remotely since the onset of the pandemic. The News’ journalists have, like millions of Americans, brought the office home.
But while reporters can use Zoom, one part of the job that is unavoidably proximate is photography. You can’t take someone’s picture without meeting them face to face.
The News’ Director of Photography Cathaleen Curtiss and her staff of seven full-time photojournalists were forced to confront the problem of in-person work in a socially distanced world head-on last March.
Curtiss said News photographers from the beginning made safety the top priority. It also meant observing social distancing at all assignments.
For photographers, 2020 was the year of the long lens.
It also meant trying to find photo subjects who themselves were willing to meet a photographer.
“We would tell them, ‘yes, the photographer will be wearing a mask. Yes, we can do it outside on your porch,’” Curtiss said.
A practical solution turned into one of The News’ most popular pandemic photography projects: Porch Portraits. The organic outdoor images became regular fodder on picture pages.
Curtiss said her team’s Every Day a Photo project took on new meaning, as well. The nature-heavy daily photo essay that is prominently featured on BuffaloNews.com began to serve as a sort of vicarious role for the thousands of Western New Yorkers stuck inside.
“We were the eyes for all the people who were too afraid to go outside during the pandemic,” Curtiss said.
The News also undertook several Covid-specific photography projects over the past year that earned high marks from readers and garnered some additional hardware in form of industry awards.
As the nation pitied high school seniors who had a watershed year in their lives washed away, staff photographer Mark Mulville leapt into action. Rather than simply nod in agreement about what a shame it was not to have a senior prom or commencement, Mulville set out to offer hundreds of graduating seniors some slice of normalcy by photographing their senior portraits.
Staff photographer Sharon Cantillon took on two Covid-related projects, the first of which saw her reporting from the floors of Covid wards and intensive care units in Western New York hospitals. She said that experience was “intense” and afterward she gained a new appreciation for the toll that it’s taken on the health care workers.
“I went to such lengths when I got home,” she recalled. “I was very hyper aware not to bring the virus inside with me.”
The second was a much more intimate project. Cantillon became a fixture in the home of one Western New York family, the Hardys. Cantillon’s mission was to document what it was like for a family of five inside their small two-bedroom Buffalo home, during a year of remote schooling.
The project earned Cantillon a first-place award from the National Press Photographers Association in The News’ division. Curtiss and her team were also honored as photo editor of the year and picture editing team of the year.
Rather than shy away from the challenges presented in the past year, the photographers at The News have risen to the occasion, serving as a roving, watchful set of eyes for the community during a time when so much is happening away from public view.
A photojournalist’s job is to bring a fresh visual perspective on the events of the world and the neighborhood. During the pandemic, a sharp eye has never been in greater demand.