It had been done before, but not quite like this. The tenderness of Emilio Morenatti's photos of nursing home residents in Spain hugging their relatives through protective sheets of plastic resonated among audiences worldwide.
The emotion jumped out of the frames: an elderly couple kissing, their lips separated by surgical masks and plastic film; a woman hugging her wheelchair-bound father for the first time in nearly four months.
Morenatti, AP’s chief photographer for Spain and Portugal, had been looking for ways to capture the reopening of nursing homes after months of lockdown when his wife gave him a good lead. She had heard on the radio about a place in Barcelona using screens of plastic film to protect the residents during visits. Morenatti called the director and explained what he wanted to do. After checking with superiors, the director gave the green light.
Because it wasn't the first time an AP photographer had access to a nursing home during the pandemic, Morenatti didn't expect his photos to make much of an impression. But when he posted one of the AP photos on Twitter, its inherent power became abundantly clear: The image quickly went viral, with thousands of likes and retweets. The following day Morenatti compiled additional frames from his visit for a photo essay that ran with text by chief Madrid correspondent Aritz Parra. It was among the most used stories from Southern Europe that week and the photos spread like wildfire on social media.
“One of the most moving epidemic-era photos I have seen,” wrote one Twitter user. Another called it “an ode to love and so heartbreaking. Terrific work.”
Major media organizations such as The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed and CNN included the photos in their best-of-the-week selections. Euronews crafted its own gallery with Morenatti's pictures. Time posted one of them on Instagram, drawing more than 100,000 likes.