While the novel coronavirus outbreak has created uncertainty for many in the journalism industry, it has also created an opportunity to tell powerful stories about the effects of the pandemic. A few weeks ago, as the virus began to spread in Latin American countries, 18 photographers began collaborating on a collective project named COVID LATAM.
“What we are looking for as a group is telling the story from our own roots as Latin Americans,” said Sebastián Gil Miranda, a photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina and founder of the COVID LATAM project. Like most of the projects he develops, COVID LATAM sits at the intersection of the social, the humanitarian and the environmental, Gil Miranda explained. “There’s a lot of intimacy in these stories,” he added.
The COVID LATAM team is made up of nine female and nine male photographers reporting from 12 Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guatemala, Cuba and Mexico. The photographers include Colombian documentary photographer Federico Ríos Escobar, who works as a freelance photographer for The New York Times; Lima, Peru-based Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd; and documentary photographer Ana Carolina Fernándes, who reports from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, among many other great photographers from the region.
Storybench spoke with Gil Miranda about how the project came to be and what motivated his team to cover the virus’s impact on Latin America.
How did COVID LATAM come to be?
It started exactly 10 days ago. It’s brand new. Sadly, we know we’ll have a very long time with this as the outbreak is just starting in Latin America. Even though this crisis is tough, it’s also a wake-up call to think about our reality, inequalities and how careless we have been with the environment.
There are a lot of human and environmental motivations behind this. The initial motivation is more than just showing what is happening, it’s about helping people react and letting them know that our isolation is a moment to connect with those around us and with the environment.
What’s the major challenge for COVID LATAM?
The biggest challenge is that we are also experiencing the crisis. Most of us are in quarantine and in isolation. Here in Argentina, the media staff can circulate with permits but I prefer to not go out if possible. I try to [take photos] when I go out grocery shopping or when I take out my dog. If there’s a thing that deserves my attention, I grab my bike and go there. That’s the less risky thing to do, not only for me but because of others.
Are there any pictures taken from home?
Yes, of course. Each of us narrate the story from the place we are currently staying. Some of us made the decision of not going out at all and telling the story from our own quarantine. But some of us may need to go out to cover [the virus] for a media organization.
How is the team organizing itself?
We created a WhatsApp group and communicate through it. We also use emails to send materials. I curate the content and publish it on Instagram. I was already familiar with Instagram but I didn’t use it as much as other photographers. Right now I’m using it more than ever. We chose this platform because of its immediacy, reach and easy access. But it’s not an Instagram project, it was just the platform we chose. We are working in the most professional way possible and with high-quality photos.
What kind of cameras and technology are you using?
Each of the photographers have their own gear and camera. In my case, I’m using a Canon 6D. But I think this project is much more about the stories rather than what technology we are using for them. Each picture shows the photographer’s sensibility. There’s a phrase I often use: We don’t see things as they are, but as we are. The diversity of points of view in this project makes us look at the situation in multiple ways, and that is what makes it visually so rich.
What have you learned with COVID LATAM?
I think we are learning all the time. When you work with such talented photographers, just by sharing ideas, listening to each other, and looking at each other’s work, we are learning and growing. These types of collective projects allow us to broaden our vision and knowledge, [especially] when you see how another photographer solves a problem.
Would you describe this project as something brave?
I don’t know if it’s brave but it’s necessary. We are taking extreme precautions, we are respecting quarantine, no one is doing anything crazy or trying to document things no matter what. We are not covering a war; we are being conscious.
Is there something else you’d like to share about COVID LATAM?
I think the essence of our project is that it comes from our own roots. There are a lot of projects around the world and a lot of pictures of the crisis. If you see a picture taken in a hospital, that picture could have been taken in any corner of the world. We want this project to have its own seal which shows our culture as it is. The crisis was something in Italy, but it would be something else in a Brazilian favela. We want to show that this project could only be done in Latin America.
Cover images: 1) Rodrigo Abd; 2) Sebastián Gil Miranda; 3) Sara Aliaga; 4) Ale Cegarra; 5) Ana Carolina Fernandez; 6) Eliana Ponte.