Stunned patients, exhausted doctors, overworked funeral directors, mourning families, and filled caskets lowered into the ground: This is what the world through Lynsey Addario’s camera looks like in 2020. The Pulitzer-winning photojournalist spent part of the year documenting the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom for National Geographic, and the results are arresting. Addario has captured the small visual details that would have otherwise been unseen in a tragedy so devastating that it almost seems unbearably abstract. But in Addario’s photographs, these details accumulate—hands rub weary eyes, flags drape on coffins, the physical strain of a pallbearer, the eyes of a patient filled with terror—and a full picture of our catastrophe emerges. An estimated 1.77 million people worldwide have died; Addario has captured the depth of that loss with a deserving frankness.
It’s almost ironic that Addario, known for her straightforward photographs of war-torn Iraq, Libya, and the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or her vulnerable portraits of refugees would turn her camera to her home. But for Addario, documenting the pandemic was an extension of her work as a conflict photographer. “So much of what I’ve done as a photographer is cover big historical and international events of our time, whether that’s the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq or the various humanitarian crises,” Addario told Jezebel. “We’re dealing with great loss of life, hospitals are filling up to capacity—[the pandemic] very naturally falls into that.”
What felt “unnatural” to Addario was “working in a place where I live because that’s not something I usually do. Usually, I get on a plane and go to a place of conflict.” But the coronavirus outbreak dissolved the frontlines, moving the catastrophe from a foreign nation and into homes and communities that had previously seemed like safe-havens. “In the pandemic, everywhere is the frontline,” Addario said. That included her own home: “My main fear was that I was putting my own family at risk. “[...] It’s one thing for me to put myself at risk, but then to bring that home to my family was really stressful.”
But Addario felt that it was important to document the pandemic and capture it for history, regardless of the risk. “It’s important to document this,” Addario said, “especially the people who lose their lives.” So she approached funeral homes, families, funeral home directors in the same way she’s approached subjects for the last 20 years. “I realized that these are vulnerable moments and it’s incredibly intrusive to have a photographer there. I was very sincere.”
In one photograph, two sisters stand with their nephew behind a coffin-filled hearse that carries their brother. One dabs her eyes while the other places a flower on the coffin. The sisters, Addario notes in an Instagram caption, will not attend his funeral because of the UK’s restrictions on gatherings. This is their goodbye. In another photograph, a funeral home worker prepares the body of a man who died in a nursing home in mid-April. Closely cropped, Addario has captured a gentle—almost tender—touch as gloved hands push back a blanket to remove the hospital bracelet wrapped around a thin, nearly translucent hand.
The photographs capture the precariousness of life without embellishment. Simple, familiar actions that take on new weight with their context. That straightforwardness was important to Addario. “I’ve covered similar topics of vulnerability, precariousness, risk for years, and for me, my approach is always direct and also honest,” she said. “This is something that we’re all going through and we need to see that.”
Addario also spent time in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas on assignment for the New York Times. There she documented an overwhelmed healthcare system where the pandemic was exacerbated by poverty and other illnesses. Her photographs of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in McAllen, Texas are a grim if accidental companion to her work in the UK. “It was heartbreaking to see people from Texas to the United Kingdom going through the same thing,” Addario said. One of Addario’s subjects in Texas, a man named Jesse Cantu, whom she photographed in this hospital, his gowned back to the camera, it’s curved line interrupted by a tube, died shortly after she photographed him. On Instagram in October, Addario noted that at the time, Cantu’s death was one of 219,000 deaths in the United States.
Since then, the number of American dead has ballooned, but denial runs deep. Shortly after the November election, Addario was sent to Philadelphia on assignment again for the Times. There she documented celebration as well as the protests of Trump voters who believed the president’s claims of voter fraud. Addario said she was “shocked” by the covid denial of some Trump supporters. “I cannot believe that there are still people in denial,” she said. “There was a whole dialogue back and forth between Trump supporters and Biden supporters. There was one man not wearing a mask saying ‘Coronavirus doesn’t exist. What, are you scared?’” Addario said that she wanted to “pause” to tell the man, “I’ve watched people die. I’ve watched a lot of people die. It does exist.” Addario refrained from confronting the man because “my role is documenting.”
Addario’s work serves both as education and history. Long after the pandemic has (hopefully) ended, Addario’s photographs will remain, bearing witness to the perilous insecurity that defined 2020, a deep contrast to the political callousness and cynicism. “I create this work so in 20 or 30 years we can look back and know what the period looked like. What did the pandemic look like? How were people suffering? But also, what was the ritual of death surrounding the coronavirus? Did the treatment of the dead change with the pandemic?” she said. “I also create the work for the present so people can be aware and know what this looks like.”