AP teams on separate continents would not be denied access to record, behind the scenes, the stark reality wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Can't be done.”
Barcelona-based photographer Felipe Dana and video journalist Renata Brito were told in no uncertain terms that Spanish hospitals and their intensive care units in particular would not allow access to journalists reporting on the coronavirus pandemic. And in New York, photographer John Minchillo and video journalist Robert Bumsted were given largely the same answer when they tried to get into a funeral home to document the terrible surge of victims literally piling up.
Neither team took no for an answer. The images and text they produced, along with the reporting of New York’s Jake Seiner, delivered some of the most haunting coverage of the pandemic. Hospital ICUs and morgues are places visual journalists rarely get to see, but that is changing as front-line workers realize that their stories must be told so that the world can understand the magnitude of the crisis.
In Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries, Dana and Brito sent formal requests to hospitals, and went door-to-door asking for access at others. Doctors were sympathetic but needed formal authorization from administrators. While the two waited, they organized protective gear that would be a prerequisite should permission come through. When it did, from a hospital in Badalona where the facility’s library had been turned into a makeshift ICU, doctors originally insisted on still photos only. But Brito came anyway, and talked her way in. Both were aware of the patient privacy laws in Spanish hospitals and took great care to shoot patients in a way that they were not identifiable. The pair’s photos and video convey respect and compassion for both the critical care patients and the exhausted doctors working in close proximity.
In New York, Minchillo and Bumsted spent days chasing down leads and following the story of bodies being sent to makeshift morgues and trailers. They tried for access at several funeral homes, but were abruptly declined. Then Minchillo heard of a funeral home in Brooklyn that might be willing. He headed over, texting Bumsted and Seiner on the way. What they found was heartbreaking. Dozens of bodies covered in sheets literally piled together in a room. The morgue, designed to handle 40-60 dead at a time, was overwhelmed by three times that count. The funeral parlor director explained that he “wanted his story told” because the world had to see the wave that was hitting.
Senior managers reviewed the strong images and video before the story moved to ensure that they were newsworthy and met AP standards. Play was off the charts for both stories, with NPR and Time using the funeral home piece; Bumsted’s video has more than 32,000 views on YouTube. Brito’s video edits of the Spanish ICU aired an extraordinary 2,000 times, including major European broadcasters France 24, Euronews and Deutsche Welle, while two of Dana’s heavily played photos were featured in the The Guardian’s “20 photographs of the week.”
The tenacity, skill and bravery on display from both teams was the difference between getting the story out to the world – or not. It’s the latest example of AP journalists proving that “No. Never. Not Possible,” does not apply to them. And it is why Dana, Brito, Minchillo, Bumsted and Seiner share AP’s Best of the Week award.
For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:
– Comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.
– Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.
– One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.
– Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.