California’s Bay Area is full of extremes: poverty and wealth; homelessness and opulence; high-level industry and the service workers who support it. The stories of two families illustrate how those extremes matter when it comes to weathering the coronavirus.
Jocelyn Gecker and Olga Rodriguez set out to show how inequality was playing out among the millions dealing with a shutdown meant to slow the spread of coronavirus. It took several tries to find families who best told the story, and who would agree to up-close, personal access to their lives. Gecker talked to three families and while none of them fit the bill, one woman talked about her ex-husband who was remarried with little kids, putting Gecker in touch with Rebecca Biernat, a San Francisco attorney. Meanwhile, Rodriguez found Sonia Bautista, a hotel worker, through the union she belonged to, and interviewed the family in Spanish, the language they were most comfortable speaking.
Once they found their subjects, the San Francisco reporters dug deep into their lives, their fears, and how they were navigating the new reality. Both Gecker and Rodriguez are working from home, and neither family was open to long in-person interviews. Gecker had Biernat walk her through every aspect of her day, and pulled out details of their family time and the school’s impressive virtual classrooms. Rodriguez talked to the Gonzalez family at least four times, and it wasn’t until one of the final conversations that the family mentioned they were thinking of cutting down on food, and were finally talking to their son about their lives during El Salvador’s civil war, key details for the story.
Photographing the families’ daily lives while also social distancing is a unique challenge. Photographer Jeff Chiu wore gloves and a mask for the two shoots, and tried to keep his distance. The first shoot, at the attorney’s home, was easier: It was earlier in the lockdown, and they were OK with him coming inside. He shot photos of the kids doing school work and the family interacting. Days later, the family of Sonia Bautista was a bigger challenge: They did not want to take a chance on letting someone into their apartment, so Chiu shot them from outside the door and window, and walking on the street.
The photos helped Gecker as she was weaving the stories together, to understand the makeup of the homes and see the relationships as the families interacted. She drove past both homes to get a feel for the two neighborhoods.
The resulting journalism is an intimate portrait of two families – what they have in common and the differences in how they are coping, with a level of detail that laid bare the inequalities: Both families are now eating three meals a day together; only one is considering whether they will have to cut down to two.
For doggedly seeking out the right subjects, overcoming distancing restrictions and expertly weaving together two tales to tell a deeper story about inequality amid turmoil, Gecker, Rodriguez and Chiu win this week’s Best of the States 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.