Photojournalism In A Pandemic: Telling Stories Without Getting Too Close
During the pandemic, journalists have been the eyes and ears of the community. But, it poses a challenge: how do you tell stories about people without being able to get close to them? In this installment of our @WORK series, we meet Visual journalist Andrew Nixon who covers stories for Cap Radio.
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Being A Journalist
I’m a starry-eyed newcomer to radio. I’m an audio academy fellow with KALW, and a host at Capital Public Radio.
So my journalism career is still pretty fresh and I appreciate all the guidance I can get.
Luckily journalists always seem open to talking about their line of work, often veering into philosophical, big picture territory. Andrew Nixon, who I know from Capital Public Radio, is no different.
“I think a big part of photojournalism right now is that everyone has a camera. Right? Everyone has a camera in their pocket at any given time, anyone can be a photojournalist. But I think what drives me is knowing that there's a certain workflow and a certain kind of ethical standard that I and my colleagues are trying to maintain. And that our photos will be looked at as some sort of record,” Nixon says. “I am informing people. It's not voyeuristic.”
My first instinct in our interview is to ask Andrew about the work he’s done covering this year’s Glass and Bear fires in Calistoga and Oroville. As a new reporter I find it difficult enough to perform under a deadline — let alone next to an active fire. I make the mistake of only thinking in terms of burning trees.
“I think what you're interested in right now is like stuff that's inside the burn area. But the first kind of photo you get is outside the burn area.”
Such as photos of people at evacuation centers. The people are what make a good photo.
“It's a matter of just, you know, providing that human insight. the vast majority of the photos I have, have some sort of human element in them.”
"You know, you think about what's in that smoke ... You're breathing in people's lives, all their possessions ... It's just really heavy."
Living in Sacramento, I was far enough away from this year's fires for them to feel like an abstract threat. Looking at Andrew’s images from the fires changes my perspective. Seeing incarcerated firefighters suppressing a forest on fire or a lone abandoned tire swing in front of an advancing flame makes it real. I feel the human toll, just as much as I see it in the faces of his subjects.
“I think it's just a matter of just helping people connect to other people through images … that's sort of the whole point, I think.” says Nixon. “It gives a human element to debates that become abstract. And I think what photojournalism does is, it helps make it real again.”
It’s the reporter’s job to make the reader, the viewer, the listener feel the realness, the weight of a situation. What was not apparent to me before talking to Andrew, is the impact on the journalist, the weight that comes with being that conduit. Nixon goes on to describe what it was like to cover this past year’s fire season.
“It's terrible because it's, you know, people are losing their homes, they're losing their lives, they're losing their pets. And you can see all of that happen,” he says. “There's so many photos I haven't taken, you know ... It's really heavy.”
“I live in Sacramento, we don't have luckily a lot of wildfire danger here. And then I drive into a cloud of smoke and, and up to some flames. And then it's like, it's just overwhelming.” Nixon says with a bit of a knowing laugh.
“You know, you think about what's in that smoke, you're breathing, you're breathing in people's lives, all their possessions, you know. And it's, it's just, it's just really heavy,”
Bearing witness to these events is an important job, especially when people can’t leave their homes to witness themselves but it can take a toll.
“As soon as I leave, it just hits me all at once. You know, it's like, man, that was someone's, that was someone's pet on the side of the road that just died of dehydration, or that was someone's home that just got completely burned out. I mean, not just singed, but like, completely burned out, all their stuff is gone,” he says.
“You know, you think about what's in that smoke, you're breathing, you're breathing in people's lives, all their possessions, you know. And it's, it's just, it's just really heavy,” says Nixon, “and it's hard to explain to people because I feel like I had my chance to explain it. You know, I was there, I took photos, I'm sharing the photos. But there's just like this emotional weight to it, too, that just sort of like, makes it that much harder.”
The Pandemic And Journalism
Facilitating human connection is at the heart of what we do as journalists. With the pandemic, human connection is much harder to come by.
“I mean, everything in our lives has become more difficult, going to the grocery store’s an ordeal, going to the gas station’s an ordeal … simple things have become very complicated. And I think photojournalism has not been spared from that,” he explains with a laugh, “everything's gotten harder, including photojournalism.”
"It's definitely weird. I get less of a sense of the person that way too."
Nixon says that he misses the human interactions he had with his coworkers in the office before the pandemic began and getting to know the people he’s taking photos of.
“Being a photographer, part of my job is to get close to people,” Nixon explains, “a lot of photography is about building rapport so that people forget that you're photographing them. So the photos look very candid and authentic. And don't have a trace of you in the photo, you know? And that's just not something I can do.”
“It’s definitely weird, I get less of a sense of the person that way too.”
Now he is spending more time on the phone planning the shoot than actually taking photos. Taking pictures through windows and spending as little time as possible at each shoot.
“It’s definitely weird, I get less of a sense of the person that way too.” says Nixon. “So I hope … in the future, we can get back to that, you know, where we can really build rapport and spend quality time with the people that we report on.”
I find it hard not to think about the potential impacts of the pandemic. I wonder if it poses a long term risk to fostering the empathy required to make good journalism, tell personal radio stories, and take human focused photographs. Andrew seems to be less worried.
“I think … there'll be a strong desire for journalists to get back to spending time in close quarters with people. I think that's a strong desire, because that produces great images.”
As a journalist just starting my career, I take solace in his confidence.
Check out Andrew Nixon’s photography here.
This story was edited by Lisa Morehouse and mixed by James Rowlands.