“I’ve had some scary shoots before … but this was different, and I remember walking in for the first time feeling rather scared,” shared UK-based photographer Slater King on documenting the COVID-19 pandemic straight from the hospital.
“I was knowingly going into a Coronavirus hot spot, repeatedly and over many days, back when there were no tests to diagnose the virus, and no cast iron guarantees of how to avoid catching it.”
For many photographers like King, the need to chronicle this catastrophic chapter in our history outweighs the risks. The task that fell on their shoulders was never going to be easy, as is the case with covering the world’s most harrowing events. But there are real stories about real people who are surrounded by the most intense pain, grief and suffering that the world needs to know.
Shooting in the “Red Room”
Part of the project was documenting what takes place in the so-called “Red Room,” where medical staff were treating a confirmed COVID-19 patient. King described the general atmosphere in the hospital as “intimidating” and he was both excited and worried as he put on the PPE gown, mask, visor and gloves.
Shooting with protective gear on was challenging since he could hardly see through the viewfinder, but it made him concentrate on shooting. “… It seemed pointless to me to put me and my assistant in danger like that if I didn’t even get the shot.”
Some people didn’t want to be photographed, and it’s understandable given the hardship everyone was going through. Still, the medical staff relayed stories of the suffering and heartache, all of which made him even more motivated to approach his subjects with “a great deal of tact and understanding.”
“A portrait is a photograph of a person who has volunteered to share their being, for better or worse, with the photographer — they’ve made the decision that they’ll let someone in, and show them who the actually are.”
Making connections despite terrible circumstances
Part of every portrait photographer’s task is to make a connection with their subjects. Given the terrible circumstances, this didn’t come easy for King. How do you ask to take their portrait given the gravity of situation? What do you do when they say no? When is it even the right moment to approach them?
King found the solution in being present even if it means being in the “precarious position of not knowing what will happen next.” In fact, it was part of what made him love the work he was doing.
“In the hospital, that feeling of being on the way to an unknown destination was heightened because I needed to have something much more meaningful than a regular conversation.”
In a way, being present also balanced the technical side of things which he described as “constantly trying to strip you clean of the moment.” Worrying about the exposure, location, composition or lighting can be especially crippling when you’re constantly reminded of what’s at stake.
“The weight of all the people’s experiences sometimes felt so heavy — what if I just wasn’t up to the job of translating these people’s experiences? What if they were telling, for the first time, the most extreme events of their lives to a stranger, and all for nothing?”
“This is now a book”
What the world has been through as a result of the COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly. It’s especially the case for medical frontliners like the British hospital staff King photographed. To make their words and stories known to the rest of us, he decided to culminate the project with a book, “Whittington Hospital in the Time of Covid.”
“This is now a book, and I like to think that people are alive inside it. As you leaf through, it feels to me that you’re almost walking along the corridors or wards with them, or taking the buses in, or meeting their families back home. I think also that inside it we can learn how to look after our own selves, because so many of the people here are figuring out how to care for themselves too.”
The book is a concrete testament not only to the poignant experiences of photographers like King, but also the bravery and extraordinary sacrifice of medical frontliners leading the fight against COVID-19 across the globe.
Don’t forget to visit Slater King’s website to learn more about the project, and grab a copy of “Whittington Hospital in the Time of Covid.” All royalties from the book will go to the hospital’s charity.
All photos by Slater King. Used with permission.