Photojournalists Publish Guidelines for Editors During COVID-19 Crisis

Certain genres of photography have come to a screeching halt during the coronavirus pandemic, but there are still countless photographers on the front lines of the public health crisis, risking their own safety to create visual journalism for the world. Now some photojournalists are speaking out about inadequate resources and protection being given by editors and publications.

Juntos Photo Coop, made up of photographers Noemí González, Laura Saunders, Ash Ponders, and Caitlin O’Hara, has published an open letter to seek “an equitable industry and a set of baseline standards that will improve safety and ensure dignity for all journalists risking their health to document the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

Here are the guidelines for editors put forth in the letter:

  • Maintain strong communication and a frank discussion of risk assessment.
  • Hire reporters as local to the story as possible.
  • Build the cost of PPE into the cost of hiring freelancers.
  • Ensure a long-term plan of quarantine and sanitation harm reduction.
  • Treat this like any other front line or hostile environment.
  • Check up on freelancers’ mental health.
  • Pay expenses up front and pay invoices as soon as possible.
  • If the reporter is traveling, build in quarantine time and pay the reporter for that period.
  • Document all field contacts in order to trace back for notification, should anyone get sick.
  • Act as a liaison and obtain testing and pay for hospitalization if/when a reporter becomes ill.
  • Enact an emergency extension of health insurance to W-9 workers.
  • Continue to pay freelancers a day rate for the duration of any sickness.

“You might be asking yourself why editors and publications need to follow guidelines like the ones Juntos Photo published,” photojournalist Melissa Lyttle Tweets. “Based on the [direct messages] and emails I’ve gotten in the last few weeks, I’m going to share some things photojournalists have been told.”

Here are quotes and stories Lyttle has shared in a lengthy thread on Twitter:

I’m a photojournalist and have been told basically this is my job. I have never backed down from an assignment of any kind. This I’m terrified of. I have 2 children, and I’d like them to have me around. I love my job but I’m given no choice. Honestly, I’m scared to death.

[Publication] isn’t allowing hazard pay yet or allowing anyone to speak about their assigning or safety because lawyers are concerned about liability.

[Publication] will have me go to 3 different places on a normal day and I asked if they were going to be changing that for lower exposure. The editor was like “we gave you masks.” They gave me 4 masks but who knows how long we have to keep those going and it’s not exactly bulletproof.

I questioned the safety of an assignment and was told if I was uncomfortable with it I wouldn’t get hired for corona related coverage again.

I almost lost a gig because I told an editor I didn’t feel comfortable going inside a house. And they were going to give it to someone else and put them at risk. At least I have some protective gear, so I said I’d do it… for 5 minutes.

I got bullied to going back out into NYC to shoot video. I told the editor that they should just tell me what specifically they wanted because I have a family & wasn’t comfortable going back into the city for that day rate. She called me negative & hung up the phone on me. I got so annoyed at this that I went back into the city for another 8 hours to shoot video. Just to make sure that this person doesn’t think I’m negative or a pain. Since I need to make sure I can make a living.

When I expressed concern about being asked to go into a crowded area the editor said “don’t you know how to keep distance?” For a $150 day rate, I refused, obviously. No talk of expensing masks, gloves or anything, and they always put up a fight about paying any expenses.

There are some organizations that do seem to be looking out for their photographers. Reuters, for example, is apparently providing both protective gear and advice to its photojournalists.

“Journalism at its best espouses standards of integrity and respect,” Juntos writes. “We hope to see these values honored to help us build the kind of future we all know is possible.

“We call on our fellow freelancers to come together, raise the standards of our industry, and ensure that we are truly protecting and supporting one another at a time where it is more critical than ever.”


Image credits: Header photos by Engin_Akyurt