Discarded masks mixed into dirt and leaves on the floor.
Photograph by Sasha Arutyunova

Where Are the Iconic COVID-19 Images?

The scarcity of memorable pandemic photographs reveals something about this crisis.

A tennis ball covered in spikes. That’s all we’ve got. More than a year has passed since the first reports of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus, and its most memorable visual signifier is a stylized illustration of the virus itself. That spiky ball floats in the background of explanatory graphics and charts, or looms eerily behind the heads of television anchors delivering yet more somber news. When I think of COVID-19, that’s what I see.

The lack of an iconic photograph from the coronavirus crisis has been nagging at me for months. When I think of 9/11, I see the smoking towers, or the “falling man.” When I think of the 2015 Mediterranean refugee crisis, I see the tiny body of Alan Kurdi, a boy whose family searched for safety across the water and found tragedy instead. Where the visual references come up short, so do my memories—the 2005 Islamist bombings of London have faded in my mind, because all but one of them happened underground. A terrorist atrocity that happened just miles from my home in London feels less real than one across an ocean in New York, at least partly because I cannot summon vivid images of the former.

Having one or more iconic images would help anchor the conversation about the pandemic in a shared set of facts, a common reality—something that seems particularly vital when COVID-19 denial is already a potent force, and “skeptical” commentators argue that lockdown measures were needless or pointless. Consider how few images have survived (or perhaps were ever taken) of the 1918 flu pandemic, compared with the First World War, and which of those two mass killers looms larger in our culture.

News organizations have long argued that “bearing witness” to conflicts, famines, and natural disasters is an ethical imperative, even when it means placing reporters and photographers in dangerous situations. (The cynical add that we are perfectly capable of looking at other people’s tragedies without feeling obliged to ameliorate them.) “News photography is what brings a story to the world, and news photography is all about access,” Rickey Rogers, the global head of pictures at the Reuters news agency, told me. “When everyone is running away from a war or an explosion, journalists are running towards it.”

But covering an infectious disease has changed the risk calculus. “One of the biggest changes to photographers is that instead of going out to cover something that involves risk and coming home to a safe place, they’re bringing that danger home with them,” Rogers said. “We have photographers that have access to ICUs, but we don’t want them to have hours in there. Every minute is a greater risk.”

Paul Brand, the television channel ITV’s U.K. editor, echoed that sentiment. Even before the pandemic, he told me, he had experienced difficulties in reporting on elderly-care homes, because some residents might not be able to give consent for an interview. But “add the pandemic, and you’re a potential danger to them. So then we’re trying to give a GoPro [camera] to a nurse and sterilize it when it comes out.”

Nonetheless, journalists in Britain and elsewhere have persisted in trying to report on hospitals and assisted-living facilities, the worst-affected places in the pandemic. Since Christmas, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of such reports on the BBC, Britain’s state broadcaster—including a powerful series by the reporter Clive Myrie, who interviewed exhausted morticians and doctors, as well as a man whose wife had just died.

Why does that matter? In the past six weeks, Britain’s National Health Service has come close to collapse and deaths have spiked higher than the first COVID-19 wave last year, partly because of a new and more transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Yet misinformation abounds. In October, researchers published a paper demonstrating the reach of the #FilmYourHospital hashtag, which was designed to spread images of empty wards. One post claiming that hospitals in Los Angeles were “EMPTY and very quiet!” received more than 20,000 retweets. If the crisis doesn’t feel real, how do you get people to stay at home, wear masks, and get the vaccine?

News reports from hospitals, and efforts such as a tracker from the Los Angeles Times showing the true impact of COVID-19 on the city’s hospitals, might help counteract this kind of misinformation, but they are less effective when it comes to humanizing the crisis. Stuart Franklin, a Magnum photographer, wrote an essay to accompany his photographs of a British hospital in March because so many of his pictures featured people in masks. “Images of this pandemic tend to show the suits and clothes and gear that people wear, which has an othering effect,” he told me. “It’s like photographing bobsleigh racing or Major League Baseball—you can’t see anyone’s emotions under the helmet.”

In fact, masks might be the most iconic representation of the crisis—at least in the West. (Wearing face masks has long been unremarkable in Asian countries affected by previous respiratory viruses.) But a mask is an addition to a scene, not an event in itself. And even in Europe and the United States, thanks to ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and any number of other medical dramas, masks are part of an existing visual vocabulary. They stand in for hygiene, safety, and distance. We’re just seeing more of them now.

These thoughts unlock the essential weirdness of this pandemic. It is a novel event in which nothing truly new is happening: People are staying at home, people are dying in hospitals, people are socializing in small groups or not at all. How does a picture of a woman standing at her window convey that she doesn’t just happen to be there for a moment, but has been trapped inside for months, shielding her fragile immune system?

Some of the most arresting pictures are the ones of nothing: the absence of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in a shopping district, the concert hall with no audience, the offices inhabited by dead mice rather than living humans. (The New York Times ran a series of such photographs called “The Great Empty.”) Again, though, these pictures do not shock us, because city centers are often deserted late at night and over the holidays. Musicians rehearsed to empty rooms before the pandemic, and will continue to do so afterward. The difference now is that the stillness doesn’t last a few hours, but stretches on, season after season.

The challenge of documenting the coronavirus is to show how our existence has been put on hold, how time has telescoped while our horizons have contracted. Many parents know what it’s like to skip work to look after a child; they just never expected to do it for weeks on end. “I’ve got kids in their 30s who are teaching at home, and all of that homeschooling, we barely see,” Franklin said. “And a lot of people aren’t homeschooling—their kids aren’t getting any education at all.” But what photograph can show that?

I would love to see visuals that show our time-lapse lives: the steady degradation of a home that is now an office, playground, school, coffee shop, and bar all at once, day after repetitive day; the slow blooming of beards as shaving became a needless task; the monotony of another day in jeans and socks as a wardrobe full of clothes hangs idle, with no parties or conferences to attend.

But again: the unique challenge of this crisis is that we are all banned from one another’s homes. “I did a story in the north of England for The Sunday Times,” Franklin said, “and the negotiation with people about whether they’d see you in their garden, whether you could speak to them on the phone—it took hours.”

When I asked Rogers, the editor at Reuters, to give me an idea of the coronavirus stories he had commissioned, he reeled off a long list: super-spreader events, transportation of the sick, people lying dead on the streets in Brazil and Ecuador, outbreaks in prisons, empty supermarket shelves, theaters with an audience of trees instead of people. “I can’t say that there was one iconic image from any news source,” he added. “An iconic image brings all the elements together, and this story was just too complex for that.” Emily Jan, an art director at The Atlantic, agreed. “I think of window portraits and plastic-bag hugs, of people saying final goodbyes on Zoom and evictions and food lines,” she told me. “People were experiencing this tragedy in vastly different ways, and in different waves. It’s not as if one sudden destructive event had occurred and we are all grappling with the aftermath.”

For Rogers, two sets of visuals nevertheless stood out. The first was drone footage of mass burials in New York City in April—something his audience was shocked to see outside a war zone—and the second was aerial images from October of cruise ships being dismantled, now that no one wants to be stuck on a boat with potential virus carriers. The latter type of images, Rogers suggested, would define COVID-19’s second year, as we slowly realize the many ways in which the world has changed while we’ve been at home, hiding from the coronavirus. “What if rather than one iconic image, this period sees a body of work become what goes down in history?” Jan said. “I believe there’s something radical there about the possibility of more perspectives when telling what we view as one story or news event.”

We need photographs of this pandemic because we need to remember it collectively. We need to fix the coronavirus crisis in our minds, so we can stand back and consider the upheaval of our lives. We must remember the scale of the challenge faced by politicians, epidemiologists, health-care workers, vaccine researchers, and the clunking bureaucracies that silently run our lives—and remind ourselves which of those groups rose to the occasion, and which did not.

In a decade’s time, we will need to stop the dead from slipping into the mist, along with the failures that helped send them there. We need to see what happened—so that, later, we can all agree that it did.