Her perspective inside the hospital was unique. But a series Mr Montgomery did at the Farenga Brothers Funeral Home in the Bronx involved even thornier ethical challenges. His images of the dead and their grieving relatives are meant to humanise the fact of mortality. They also restore the individuality of some of the pandemic’s many victims.
“The moral issues were huge,” acknowledges Kathy Ryan of the NYTM. “It’s not very often you see pictures dealing with the dead in our culture in this way.” In one image, editors blurred out a name-tag attached to a body bag. The series includes open coffins and refrigerated corpse trucks, but the most graphic scenes were omitted. The Purewals, the family at the centre of the shoot, were willing to be photographed as a way of honouring their late father. For some who were unable to give their loved ones proper funerals, Mr Montgomery’s pictures became a memorial.
What, for the West, has been an unusually intimate encounter with death has affected views on how suffering elsewhere in the world is portrayed. In March, after seeing the devastation that covid-19 was causing in Lombardy, Nana Kofi Acquah, a Ghanaian photographer, posted an address to white journalists on Instagram. “Can you photograph Africa with the same level of respect and empathy?” he asked. Azu Nwagbogu, director of the African Artists’ Foundation, hopes the global nature of the pandemic will lead to a levelling in the way anguish in different places is covered. “I think there’s now a clear understanding of the dignity and respect for human life that needs to be given to all patients.”
Pictures are, after all, one of the ways posterity will remember the pandemic and the lives it disrupted. Arts institutions are already beginning to shape the way it will be seen—and they are not relying only on professionals. The National Portrait Gallery in London, for example, has received over 30,000 submissions for “Hold Still”, a community photography project launched in response to the virus. “I see people voicing gratitude and manifesting dreams about better times, lives and loves after lockdown,” Magda Keaney, a curator, says of the entries. Professionals still shape perceptions of crises, wrestling with their motives and responsibilities as they shoot. But they are no longer alone.