Back in early March, we had already spent 2 months covering the COVID-19 outbreak. The team gathered for the morning news meeting, many joining by video conference. “I’m surprised you’re all still in the office. I bet by the end of the week they’ll send everyone home,” Science’s infectious disease reporter declared ominously from the large video screen on the wall.
Science’s offices closed 3 days later. With the pandemic hitting the Washington, D.C., area our staff began working from home.
It’s been 6 months since the virus emerged. Over that time, as senior photo editor, I’ve pored through thousands of pictures documenting the effects of this historical crisis.
Most Science magazine stories fall in a narrow portion of the news media spectrum. Photo assignments require scientific accuracy when illustrating stories about specific species or molecules. This can limit availability of appropriate photography. However, the vast number of pictures made about the coronavirus can make the subject feel never-ending.
News photographs repeat the same scenarios over and over again: Travelers’ foreheads measured for fever at checkpoints, social distancing practices forcing people 6 feet apart, families kept in isolation behind glass windows, frantic emergency rooms and medical facilities, medical staff garbed in protective equipment caring for their patients, massive temporary hospitals set up with rows and rows of beds ready for the sick. Every few days I saw these same pictures repeated in a new country. Yet to keep people’s attention, the pictures needed to feel fresh.
Ultimately the photographs with the most impact are those telling human stories. Images that create an immediate emotional connection can leave readers speechless and empathetic. They reveal telling moments—when a daughter taps her father on the head, saying goodbye as he is wheeled into an ambulance. Or seeing a medical worker collapsed on the stairs during a mentally and emotionally draining shift.
In science journalism these human connections can sometimes be lost in the quest for the most technically or scientifically appropriate image. Yet pictures of other people can engage us emotionally. Their impact can be immediate, and also linger in our memory. When we look back on this time in history, what we may remember most will be those images of people—and how sharing their emotions made us feel.
Here are the most memorable photographs from Science’s coverage of the pandemic so far:
Emily Petersen is the Senior Photo Editor at Science.