Photography, the critic Susan Sontag wrote, “has kept company with death ever since cameras were invented.” This year it has helped tell the story of covid-19. Photographers around the world have documented suffering and treatments that might otherwise have remained unseen. In their tragic subject-matter and informative role, images of the pandemic have resembled war photography—except that, instead of capturing far-away conflicts, photographers have turned their lenses on their own communities.As in a war, sharp ethical questions have arisen: about the camera’s intrusion on pain, and how the story of the disease is told.
The use of black and white is a key choice. Historically, says Jennifer Good, an expert on photojournalism at the London College of Communication, the palette “serves a particular function in the photography of war, because it negates the shocking redness of blood”. Some of the most famous images of the Vietnam war, for instance, were shot this way. But there are illustrious peacetime precedents, too. Ms Cunningham cites “Country Doctor”, W. Eugene Smith’s series for Life magazine in 1948—for which he followed a doctor in rural Colorado—as an inspiration. The subject, Ernest Ceriani, is depicted as a charismatic, slick-haired saviour. Black and white, Ms Good says, can be “a distancing measure. It cuts out some of the more striking or shocking aesthetic elements of the picture, creating an elegance and a timelessness.”
Along with these associations, black and white can focus attention. Mr Montgomery used strobe lighting to direct the viewer’s gaze, calling attention to individual actions within the often frantic ward. In one image, the arm of a paramedic performing CPR is tensed, the force of motion clear, but the outcome unknown.When health-care staff look straight into the camera, viewers feel transported to the hospital—admiring the doctors and nurses, yet unsettled by their own voyeurism.
For both viewer and photographer, there is a fine line between compassionate observation and indecent intrusion.Hospital wards are full of sensitive information which must be repositioned or omitted while shooting. Patients and doctors must give their consent before their pictures are taken. Being a nurse, Ms Cunningham says, “gave me a certain moral and ethical freedom. I knew there was a line I would never cross.”