Crisis in Italy: documenting coronavirus

A man lies in bed surrounded by Italian Red Cross volunteers. A painting of the Virgin Mary hangs on the wall. Photo by Fabio Bucciarelli.
Covid-19 patient Claudio Travelli resting in bed after being examined by Italian Red Cross volunteers, photographed by Fabio Bucciarelli. Claudio decided to stay at home but days later his oxygen levels dropped and he was rushed to hospital. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1600. © Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

As Covid-19 started to spread across the world, embattled Northern Italy emerged as the site of the largest outbreak in Europe. With a healthcare system in crisis, medics spoke of the heart-rending choices they were forced to make, deciding which of the patients in the overloaded hospitals would be given access to the intensive care beds and ventilators that were in such short supply.

Published in The New York Times, Fabio Bucciarelli's powerful, intimate images, shot on hospital wards and inside coronavirus patients' homes, brought the reality of these life-or-death decisions into stark relief.

Experienced conflict photographer Fabio, who has spent the past 10 years covering wars and their consequences in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and most recently won second prize in the General News category of the 2020 World Press Awards for images of protests in Chile, this time turned his lens towards the battle taking place in his own country.

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Fabio reported from inside the crisis alongside his partner Francesca Tosarelli, whose footage of struggling families and hospitals under siege was broadcast on Channel 4 News, ARTE, NBC and Al Jazeera. A filmmaker and DoP, she has developed projects on social issues, gender and migration, including covering stories on environmental activists in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, female rebel guerrillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Honduran migrants fleeing organised crime.

Here, Fabio and Francesca explain the challenge of reporting on the virus safely and ethically, and describe what it was like bearing witness to the human tragedy unfolding before them.

A man sits in his living room wearing breathing apparatus surrounded by Italian Red Cross volunteers. Photo by Fabio Bucciarelli.
Red Cross volunteers help 41-year-old Antonio Amato get ready to go to hospital with suspected Covid-19, while his wife and children watch anxiously from a neighbouring room. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

More than empty streets

As Italy went into lockdown, the main visuals were of masked residents and eerily empty streets. "I had seen images of empty spaces and clear water in Venice, but there were not a lot of images from inside Covid-19," says Fabio. "There was a story missing there," adds Francesca.

After contacting Red Cross volunteers in the stricken region of Lombardy, the pair were given permission to join emergency callouts to suspected Covid-19 patients in the city of Bergamo. With Fabio on assignment for The New York Times and Francesca working on packages for multiple news channels, the two ventured into what was then the epicentre of the outbreak, to document victims in their homes, hospitals and, in some cases, makeshift mortuaries.

"I witnessed the collapse of a system," says Francesca. "As Italians, we are used to having a very good public health system. It's shocking when that is not working any more. It was not only a matter of doctors in the ICU saying: 'We have to make choices – who is the person that can be saved?' I saw the same scene many times – reaching a place and meeting a patient who needed to be hospitalised, but could not be."

Francesca Tosarelli wears PPE, and holds a Canon EOS C300.
Francesca and Fabio were given protective clothing to wear when entering patients' homes and hospitals. They also had to protect their kit, to avoid contamination. © Francesca Tosarelli

The safety and ethics of covering Covid-19

On arriving at a patient's home, the volunteers introduced Fabio and Francesca to family members, so they could ask permission to shoot inside. "Most of the time we were received very warmly," says Francesca. "They understood that Italy was a few weeks in front of the rest of Europe, and that showing this was very important."

Then began a detailed safety protocol, taught to them by the Red Cross, to ensure they protected themselves and others from the spread of the virus. Only after donning full white body suits, masks, goggles and two pairs of gloves, could they enter someone's home. After leaving, everything needed to be carefully removed, and either disposed of or sanitised – including camera equipment.

A woman in a red dress and holding a blue umbrella walks through shallow water dragging a chain of jerry cans behind her.

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"When you enter somewhere with a high risk of infection, such as houses or hospitals, it's possible everything can be infected," says Fabio. "That means your camera. I was only working with two cameras – a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens. I would usually keep a 50mm with me too, but there was no way to change lenses, because I couldn't take a bag with me."

Despite often having less than 30 minutes with a family, Francesca and Fabio were committed to approaching their subjects with dignity. "If you're a filmmaker, you need to do it with respect and with empathy," says Francesca. "That's the most important thing."

"This kind of work is not about going into the streets and taking a few pictures," adds Fabio. "The family sign a model release, but more than that, they open their doors to you. Trying to build a relationship with your subject, even for just a few minutes, is so important. That will ensure you get the right picture."

One story, two mediums

The pair, who have previously collaborated on stories about migrants at the US border, travelled together around Bergamo while working on separate stories for different media outlets. "I'm a filmmaker and Fabio is a photojournalist, so sometimes it works really well – with a little bit of compromise," says Francesca. "You need to make sure you don't get in the other's frame."

Francesca was shooting on a Canon EOS C300 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III), her filmmaking stalwart for several years, which has even survived being submerged in a Mexican river. She paired it with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. "I was covering news with the eye of a documentary filmmaker," she says. "Doing news can help you to understand the issue – I see news and documentaries as things that can work together. I come from photography, so I couldn't approach any type of coverage without a good frame, without finding the right light or trying to look for the poetry."

Fabio, who has been shooting with the Canon EOS R for six months, found its small size helped him cover the story more sensitively. "If the story is personal and intimate, I think that a smaller camera, a mirrorless, can help you," he says. Some 90% of his images were shot at his preferred focal length with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens. "The Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens was good for small spaces," he adds. "If you're in hospitals and houses, a wider angle can be useful."

 A team of nurses in protective clothing intubate a patient on a hospital bed. Photo by Fabio Bucciarelli.
Nurses intubate a Covid-19 patient on an ICU ward at the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.2 and ISO1000. © Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times
Three people in protective gear help lift a woman with Covid-19 onto her bed. Photo by Fabio Bucciarelli.
Teresina Coria, 88, a suspected Covid-19 patient, is helped into bed by her son Ezio and Red Cross volunteers at her home in Pradalunga, in the province of Bergamo. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/400 sec, f/2.2 and ISO800. © Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

The power of images

Fabio and Francesca's footage and photographs of the outbreak gave a glimpse into the devastation unfolding inside Italy. Published and broadcast in mid-March, just weeks after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), they served as a prescient warning of the bleak realities faced by overwhelmed health systems.

"Italy quickly became one of the world's worst places for Covid-19," says Francesca. "We produced some of the first visuals of Covid-19 patients, their relatives and the ICU teams, which helped to inform the public."

"I started working on the story to give people more information to try to understand the disease," adds Fabio. "People are suffering from this epidemic, but this enemy is invisible. I'm trying to help people open their eyes to this crisis and see how dangerous this virus can be."

Autor Lucy Fulford

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