The Pictures of the Pandemic

For a year now, the corona pandemic has been dominating our lives and consequently it is omnipresent in the media. Countless pictures show us the many facets of the pandemic day after day. But why do we see this particular photo and not another? What are the underlying selection criteria for press images? And which images of the crisis will stick in our minds? Jann Jenatsch, deputy managing director of the Keystone-SDA press agency, discusses these questions in the following interview. 

Image 1: Clinicians treat a coronavirus patient at the Cantonal Hospital La Carità in Locarno. The Cantonal Hospital La Carità is the medical centre in the Canton of Ticino for the treatment of coronavirus patients. 11.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Ti-Press/Alessandro Crinari)

HCCD: In his media column on WDR, Christoph Sterz asks (also published as a link post on our blog) whether the “right” images of the corona crisis are being shown in the media. He states that hardly any pictures from German intensive care units are shown in Germany. If sick or deceased people are not visible, the emotional connection that shakes people up and makes them rethink their behaviour is missing. The presence of “more drastic” images from our immediate surroundings could also debunk conspiracy myths. Do you share this opinion? If so, does this also apply to Switzerland?

Jann Jenatsch: The reader doesn’t want to be supplied with pictures from the intensive care unit while having their morning coffee, after all there is also positive news, why does the world always have to be so terrible? … So that the subscriber does not jump off, a meaningless stock image is used instead, at least an image that promises hope: a sharp syringe in soft light, gentle and painless. 

The distrust of public institutions like hospitals towards the media is great. It is about control, power and money. It is understandable that an intensive care unit does not want to be used as a symbolic image, since it is about the truly sick, about life and death. There is no place for voyeurism here. Access to hospitals and their intensive care units is correspondingly difficult. 

A look into the intensive care unit suggests that there – in the middle of the epicentre – we are as close as possible to the virus. So, does the view through a porthole into an intensive care unit (image 1) serve this very voyeurism or does this perspective refer to the distance that the viewer has to keep? What is the difference to the photos taken from inside an intensive care unit (image 2)? The photographer Anthony Anex describes it this way: “It was only when I was able to enter the intensive care unit of the HFR cantonal hospital in Fribourg that I realised the extent of the pandemic. A young man my age was in a coma. Machines with tubes in his throat were keeping him alive. I hope with all my heart that he will recover.” (Keystone-SDA press release, 08.04.2020: Looking at Switzerland in lockdown). Without the emotional description of the photographer or the corresponding embedding in a perceptual context, the intensive care unit remains the engine room of our health, abstract and, for most, out of touch with reality. And yet it is indispensable that such images exist, no question. But: isn’t the ambulance driver in a protective suit, with a mask and a breathing apparatus (image 3) – at first still as an exercise, a little later already in an emergency – almost more frightening? The ambulance driver picking up a Covid19 patient in Biasca for transport to a hospital (image 4) is an image we have previously only seen from China or Africa. Now it is becoming a reality in our everyday lives. 

Image 2: Medical personnel at work in the intensive care unit of the hospital “Hôpital cantonal fribourgeois (HFR)” in Fribourg during the coronavirus outbreak. 30.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Anthony Anex)
Image 3: An ambulance health care worker of the Mendrisiotto Ambulance Service is puting on his mask and protection gear to practice for a coronavirus emergency in Mendrisio. 26.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Ti-Press/Elia Bianchi)
Image 4: Tre Valli Soccorso ambulance service staff on duty in Biasca with a patient suspected of having coronavirus. 06.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Ti-Press/Samuel Golay)

HCCD: What are the selection criteria for press images published by Keystone-SDA (apart from respecting the privacy and personal rights of the people portrayed)? Are there ethical limits, for example, in the case of photographs of dead or seriously ill people? In which situations are emotional or shocking pictures shown, when rather factual or metaphorical ones, and what are the reasons for this?

Jann Jenatsch: It is about journalism, ethics and perception. What is the role of the photographer? It is about a photographic attitude that the journalistic photographer has internalised, an attitude that enables him to show and document an issue with a professional self-image, authentically and comprehensibly, despite his consternation and his feelings towards the reality he finds. The documentary knows neither confinement nor boundaries. Despite the photographer’s subjective point of view, the top priority is factual information. There is as little tolerance for (undocumented) staging as there is for aesthetic exaggeration. In case of doubt, the four-eyes principle applies. The press photographer must not be an arsonist, his task is to document what has happened and to depict reality in such a way that, on later inspection, it can be understood what has been, regardless of the circumstances. It all sounds very simple, and yet everyday life with corona challenges the photographers again and again: Where are the easy moments? Where are the random encounters? Where has the human being remained? 

HCCD: What kind of images of the coronavirus crisis do you think are most popular? Which images are clicked on most often online?

Jann Jenatsch: The pandemic is (to this day) unreal for many, it remains abstract as long as it cannot be connected to one’s own reality. For this reason, we have tried from the beginning to take up as many aspects of the pandemic as possible and to make the changed everyday life visible in all its facets. It started with the absence of Chinese tourists in Lucerne (image 5), then came the cancellation of the Geneva Motor Show (image 6) or the cancellation of the Basel Carnival (image 7). More worrying was the parked Swiss fleet at the Dübendorf airfield (image 8) or the closure of the border in Ticino (image 9). And people also vanished: where there was usually a lot of activity, there were suddenly no more people to be seen (image 10). … 

Between 01.02.2020 and the 01.02.2021, Keystone-SDA photographers took almost 55,000 photos in connection with the coronavirus. During this period, more than 18,000 different photos have been obtained through Keystone-SDA’s image database, one of them 76 times (image 11). It is interesting to note that in this photo, too, the viewer is standing in front of the door, like the picture of the intensive care unit through the porthole. Here the action is much closer. It is a very human picture that inspires through its simplicity and authenticity.

Image 5: No tourist coaches at Schwanenplatz in Lucerne: Chinese tourists have stayed away since the beginning of February. 12.02.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Alexandra Wey)
Image 6: Workers dismantle booths after the cancellation of the 90th Geneva International Motor Show (GIMS) by Swiss authorities, at the Palexpo in Geneva. 28.02.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Salvatore di Nolfi)
Image 7: Four people in protective suits and with carnival lanterns make a round in the courtyard of the city hall in Basel after the government council decided at an extraordinary meeting to prohibit the organised events from taking place as part of the 2020 carnival. 28.02.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Georgios Kefalas)
Image 8: Parked planes of the airline Swiss at the airfield in Dübendorf. The bigger part of the Swiss airplanes are not in use due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. 23.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Ennio Leanza)
Image 9: Border Guard Corps officials close the San Pietro di Stabio border crossing between Switzerland and Italy. In Ticino, border traffic from Italy is channelled to the larger border crossings in order to better control the spread of the coronavirus. 11.03.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Ti-Press/Davide Agosta)
Image 10: An empty aerial view of the tram and bus station “Central” in Zurich. 29.02.2020 (Foto: Keystone/Ennio Leanza)
Image 11: Medical personnel at work in the intensive care unit of the Sion hospital (Hôpital de Sion) in Sion. 01.04.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott)

HCCD: Looking back at last year’s corona coverage: In your view, are there any images that were inappropriate or should not have been published in the way they were?

Jann Jenatsch: With this abundance of pictures, there are bound to be one or two that don’t win any prizes. The photographers are chroniclers, and therein lies their quality. Looking at them from a distance of twenty or thirty years certainly makes their work worthwhile. 

Especially in times of crisis, pictures are always a platform for different interest groups. Here it is important to put all facets into the picture with careful balance. On the other hand, it is just as important to stand up for images that do not suit a certain interest group and to protect them from being blocked or deleted. I can only repeat: The documentary should know neither limits nor confinements. 

HCCD: Finally, let’s take a look into the future: what images of the corona crisis do you think will stick in our collective memory? What iconic images are there that will give this crisis a face for a long time?

Jann Jenatsch: I would like to pick out just one picture (image 12): There is the Federal Councillor Alain Berset and Daniel Koch sitting in a café and taking a break. This picture makes the coronavirus pandemic a little more tangible, it gives it a human face.

Image 12: Federal Councillor Alain Berset (right) and Daniel Koch, Covid 19 delegate of the FOPH, at the Café du Gothard, Fribourg. 12. 05.2020 (Photo: Keystone/Peter Klaunzer)

Jann Jenatsch (*1962) has been deputy managing director of the merged Keystone-SDA press agency since 2018, at the same time holding the journalistic leadership of the national, multimedia news agency. Previously, he had headed the Keystone photo agency as its CEO since 2008. Jenatsch started as a so-called sandwich boy at Keystone in 1986, while studying architecture at the ETH, where he graduated in 1991. He is married and lives in Zurich.


Note: all pictures accompanying the article: © 2021 Keystone-SDA, All Rights Reserved


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Beatrice Kaufmann

Beatrice Kaufmann works as a research associate at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB). Her field of interest is health care communication design and social design. She has extensive practical experience as a graphic designer and illustrator.

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