When Ali Ghanbari headed out to cover a story about a 5-year-old boy whose birthday was canceled because of a state-wide stay-at-home order, he was thinking about ways to shoot the story and still observe “social distancing” guidelines.
A news photographer at WJW TV, in Cleveland, Ohio, Ghanbari carried at least three boom microphones in his crew car, knowing he would need to use audio gear that would be able to pick up sound from a distance.
“Since this started, I have not put a microphone on anybody,” Ghanbari said. “Not even on the reporter.”
In accordance with station management’s new rules Ghanbari met the news reporter on location rather than both of them driving in one vehicle. A photojournalist for more than four decades, Ghanbari parked his car across the street from the mom and the birthday boy’s house. He attached a boom microphone to a light stand and pointed one toward the mom and her son, who was about 10 feet away, sitting on the front steps of their house.
Ghanbari set up his shot and Belay called the mom and spoke with her on a cellphone.
“I got a wide shot that showed the phone,” Ghanbari said. “It isn’t worth it to lose your life just because you want to get the interview.”
Ghanbari recorded the interview audio from the speaker on the cellphone and natural sound from the boom microphone on the light stand. As he edited the one minute 40 second package, the reporter sat in her car reading her voice-over via a10-foot XLR cable connected to Ghanbari’s camera in his vehicle.
The story had a happy ending. After the mom posted notice of her son’s birthday on social media, neighbors responded by dropping off balloons and gifts, from a safe distance. Ghanbari was able to shoot video of the spontaneous celebration and said most people they interviewed are also aware of the need to social distance.
Photojournalists and reporters have had to quickly adapt to conditions reporting in a pandemic. Bobby Poitevint, a multimedia journalist at WALB News 10 in Albany, Georgia, said he prepared for social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control by visiting his local hardware store where he bought some zip ties and a two-foot wooden dowel.
“I was able to fasten it to a stick mic that we normally would use in the field,” Poitevint said. “It gave me about an extra two to three feet of room so that I can have an extension to do an actual physical interview with.”
Like Poitevint, Eric Brefka, a photojournalist at ABC affiliate, 13 on Your Side, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, produced his first few coronavirus stories from home.
“Right after an executive order came down here in Michigan from our governor that closed or made all the non-essential work, we were trying to reach out to people who had been laid off,” Brefka said. “But not being able to go and meet with people face to face, we were basically doing interviews through Facebook, video messages and FaceTime.”
Once Brefka and his colleagues established news procedures for how they would practice social distancing, Brekfa started going out into the community to interview people who were comfortable talking to him, taking care to avoid contact with anyone.
“We [took] light stands and basically mounted microphones to the top of those using gaff tape, Brefka said. “Then we put it up 6, 7, 8 feet out, and have the interviewee come stand up to it almost like it’s a podium. We had them talking to the microphone while we shoot them from a distance.”
Kathleen Flynn, a freelance visual journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New Orleans, Louisiana, said the last few weeks have felt similar to when she was covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, only this time she said she is finding ways to take photos of people from afar.
“It’s been a weird transition from the kind storytelling I do [where ] I’m used to spending time in people’s homes, getting to know them,” Flynn said. “Now I’m shooting [from] outside windows. I was on a ladder shooting through a really thick glass, I was just seeing those moments [and] I can’t imagine what’s being said.”
Uly Muñoz, a photojournalist at the Baltimore Sun said he found that the people he has interacted with for his stories have been very receptive to talking to him, or allowing themselves to be photographed because they want to be able to share their stories.
“We are very respectful that if somebody chooses not to meet us in person, we try to find other ways to still get the visual,” Muñoz said. “Whether that’s maintaining even more distance like saying, you can just stand on your stoop and I will be all the way back. I make Just whatever accommodations that make them comfortable.”
Atlanta-based news photographer Jim Zorn said his station provided safety gear very quickly to ensure reporters and photographers would stay safe in public since many people were still outside.
“They got us everything we could possibly need, from gloves to Lysol wipes to boom poles, so that when we do interviews we can stand six to eight feet back,” Zorn said.
In the course of shooting a story at a hospital in Newnan, Georgia, where triage tents were being set up in anticipation of large numbers of patients, Zorn said people were very self-aware about the need for social distancing.
“I did an interview from 6 feet away from a doctor, wearing a mask,” Zorn said. “And I did the interview with a boom mic, and when I got to tour the [medical] facility he stayed 6 feet out.”
Zorn said he was not overly concerned about his personal safety because he is taking precautions seriously.
“There’s no way to really know what little mess up I can make. I know that I have to constantly think and wipe things down, and double check things, [and] to try not to touch my face,” Zorn said. “When I’m out in the world right now I’d rather like people do what they’re supposed to do to stay home because it’ll make my job safer.”
Since many reporters and photojournalists spend a great deal of their time on the road accessible clean bathrooms haves become a daunting challenge.
“The only problem that I need to fear now, is that we cannot find a place to use the bathroom,” Ghanbari said. “Other than that, I’m okay.”
Zorn said he knows that truck drivers have also experienced these, often times, uncomfortable problems.
“Small businesses are closing their bathrooms so lots of places are closed, or aren’t letting people in the stores,” Zorn said.
Amy Davis, a photojournalist at the Baltimore Sun, said she is not afraid to go out and do stories because she believes it is critical for journalists to document what is going on, but what health care workers do is more important.
“I don’t consider myself on the front lines in the same way as folks that are in hospitals or nursing homes or even grocery stores” Davis said. “I think I don’t have the extent of the risks that they have. Those people are very courageous to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Davis said her risk is more limited than it is for workers at hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores and any of the other businesses deemed essential, and that she can transmit photos from home, or her car which allows her to minimize her exposure to the coronavirus.
There are so many unknowns right now, but I really do believe that we need to be documenting what’s going on,” Flynn said. “And I think, I think it’s important to tell these stories, to bring [people] the reality of what’s going on, and to see the stories of frontline workers, and of people who have lost their loved ones.
Brefka said his station’s viewers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have expressed appreciation for his news team’s stories, and acknowledged the importance for reporters to put out accurate information about the coronavirus.
“We’ve had large spikes in viewership, both on air, as well as traffic going through social media and the website,” Brefka said. “I think it just kind of snapped us into a reality where we need information as quickly as we can get it, as accurately as we can get it, and I think the public realizes that.
Shenid Bhayroo is a journalism instructor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He has worked as a journalist and television news photographer.