In India, the COVID-19 surge is nothing short of apocalyptic. Serpentine lines of patients wait in front of hospitals hoping to get a bed. Hospitals say they have run out of oxygen cylinders and life-saving drugs.
Crematoriums are overwhelmed with dead bodies, while social media apps like Twitter have turned into a COVID crisis helpline. More than 18.3 million cases and 204,000 deaths have been reported so far, in what has emerged as the global epicentre of the pandemic. One person is reported to die from COVID-19 every five minutes in India, but experts worry that the actual number of cases and deaths is much higher.
Photographers documenting the unfolding horror are transforming these staggering statistics into real unforgettable people and stories. Tragic photos can change the course of history, or at the very least, galvanise discussions and show the world reality as it stands. They can scorch us - the viewers of these photographs - and in doing so, hurt or help.
There are many ethical debates linked to portraying tragedy but it’s these shocking photos coming out of India that are pushing the world to sit up and take notice. And they come at a grave personal cost for those taking these photos.
We spoke to photographers risking their lives, physical and mental health to document India’s unfolding COVID-19 crisis, to try to understand how these often invisible front-line workers are doing.
Bhat Burhan, freelance photojournalist
“On April 23, I was at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in New Delhi when a young man ran up to me asking for oxygen cylinders for his older brother. There’s nothing I could do, so I asked him to speak with the doctors and nurses. The patient was struggling to breathe and was laid out on a stretcher. Minutes later, I saw the doctors giving him CPR and pumping his chest. He was gone and everyone knew it. I think I cried a little, but I also felt so numb from what I saw. It wasn’t the first time I saw someone die in front of me but this one stung the most. I was conflicted about taking the dead man’s photo, but then I told myself I’m a journalist and must do my job. I haven’t been able to sleep much since that day. When you come back home from witnessing death and dread, what do you do? I have images of dead bodies, crematoriums and burial grounds playing in my head all day.”
Money Sharma, photojournalist with AFP
“I visited the Seemapuri crematorium in New Delhi on April 26. It was my first assignment after recovering from COVID myself. I was still a little weak but I decided to go anyway. What I saw there sent a shiver down my spine.
I’ve covered bomb blasts and violence before, but nothing compares to the ongoing COVID horror. The image ingrained in my head is seeing piles and piles of bodies stacked on top of each other.
Several people on Twitter have alleged that pictures of cremations and crematoriums overflowing with bodies are disrespectful to their religious sentiments. I understand where they’re coming from, but we need to see how photojournalists are documenting this dark episode in our history. I’ve had several breakdowns since my visit to the Seemapuri crematorium. We need to recognise the importance of photojournalists documenting these instances when authorities can clearly misreport numbers of casualties.”
Anindito Mukherjee, freelance photojournalist
“The toughest picture for me to shoot was at a crematorium in Delhi where the heat of the funeral pyres was unbearably intense. I was shooting the pyres from up close and for a second I thought maybe I could get infected. No amount of money or health insurance seems enough right now when the city doesn’t have any beds to cater to patients. I tried to show the scale of damage by making pictures that are suggestive of a higher death rate. It was also important for me to not induce panic in people with my pictures. I think most photographers are worried about staying afloat now rather than their mental health.”
Suprakash Majumdar, freelance reporter
“This was my first time taking pictures for a report. It is difficult to talk to people who are grieving and visibly shaken at crematoriums and hospitals. I observed people for at least ten minutes before approaching them. I was taking pictures for my report on COVID cremators for VICE World News when I came across this man who was about to ignite the funeral pyre of his mother. He was crying before the rituals began, almost inconsolable. That was tough to witness and after leaving the crematorium, I broke down. Another thing is, people expect that as a journalist, I can help them source hospital beds or oxygen cylinders even though I really can’t. I have limited resources too.”
Danish Pandit, freelance photojournalist
“Last week, I was at AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) in New Delhi, and was walking around its corridors to try and locate the place they keep oxygen in. However, I accidentally walked into their trauma centre. I was there for just five minutes but even then, I saw at least 30 dead people in that space. It was absolutely scary for me. The ethics of taking such photos are tough to unpack right now.
On one hand, people are suffering a lot and sometimes bursting out on journalists and photographers because they think we are sensationalising a tragedy. On the other, if you don’t take such photos, people think we’re spreading some kind of government propaganda and not worried about the ones really suffering.
It makes you question everything you put out there. Personally, because I am also following Ramadan and fasting, this has been tough for me. My family back home in Kashmir is constantly worried about my safety. They also message me asking why I share such images but I believe it’s important to put them out there. Not for sensationalism but only because it’s so many people’s truth.”
(With input from Dhvani Solani)