March was shaping up to be a good month for Brian Bowen Smith, a photographer in Los Angeles who has worked for Vogue and GQ. He had five big jobs lined up, including shoots for two Netflix posters. All five were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is no work whatsoever,” he said. “It’s kind of scary, actually.”
To fill his newly free hours, Mr. Bowen Smith drove to Joshua Tree National Park and trained his camera on the barren landscape. It was a long way from the work that usually pays his bills. In recent years, when he is not photographing Christian Bale, Miley Cyrus and Issa Rae for major magazines, Mr. Bowen Smith has shot ad campaigns for Marc Jacobs and other fashion companies.
Now he is telling himself that everything will be OK. “A lot of stuff can be done remotely,” he said. “And maybe that’s going to be our future. Everyone wears masks.”
As practitioners of a craft that requires long hours of getting up close and personal with their subjects, photographers have been affected by social distancing restrictions perhaps more than other media workers.
“Photographers can’t do what reporters can do — they can’t be on the phone,” said María Salazar Ferro, emergencies director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They have to be very close to the action.”
Josh Ritchie, a freelance photographer in Florida, estimated that he lost $10,000 in recent weeks because of canceled assignments. To scrounge up money, his attorney has been scouring the web for illegal use of his images.
“At night, I’m binge-watching ‘Tiger King’ and having mini panic attacks,” Mr. Ritchie said.
Some photojournalists, like Gary He, have gone in search of images particular to a unique moment. One of Mr. He’s photographs, taken last month for the food website Eater, captured an unsettling scene that would have been unremarkable before the spread of the virus: Dozens of people, including delivery workers, crowded on a Manhattan sidewalk as they awaited pickup orders from the restaurant Carbone.
“I did a lot more shooting from across the street than I normally would have,” Mr. He said in a text message. And that meant a change in gear. “I use a midrange zoom for most of my work,” he added, “and I’ve been using the longer end of the lens a little bit more these days, to get me a few feet further away from my subjects, mostly for their safety and comfort.”
For an Eater shoot last week focused on New York City restaurant workers, Mr. He moved in close, wearing a mask, to take intimate portraits.
Some photographers have come down with the virus. Mark Kauzlarich, a freelance photojournalist and commercial photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, said he got very sick last month. Doctors told him it was Covid-19, although he was not tested.
“I had said very openly I was sure I was going to get sick,” he said. “We have to be in the field. There’s no way to completely mitigate.”
Mr. Kauzlarich, who is on the mend, sounded as if he would not change his approach. “To be a good journalist,” he said, “you can’t be 40 feet away.”
Anthony Causi, a staff sports photographer for The New York Post, died of Covid-19, the paper announced on Sunday. A spokeswoman said The Post did not know how Mr. Causi had contracted the disease.
The pandemic may be the biggest news story of a generation and, while taking precautions, many editors have sought to get images that show it. On March 10, Radhika Jones, the editor in chief of Vanity Fair, commissioned Alex Majoli to photograph his hard-hit home country, Italy. Vanity Fair published his photo essay on Sicily two weeks later.
Ms. Jones said that Mr. Majoli’s experience, which has included stints in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, made her confident that he would take care of himself.
“There is something that is so powerful about an image,” Ms. Jones said. “It doesn’t require translation. We made these pictures in Italy, and in certain ways they’re specific to that experience and even specific to this photographer as an Italian. But they’re also about humanity, and they are universal.”
Caitlin Ochs, a freelance photojournalist in Brooklyn, captured images of daily life in the borough amid the outbreak for a Reuters project. Before another assignment, for The Wall Street Journal, an editor at the paper provided her with a Ziploc bag containing N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
Her daily disinfecting routine, informed by an emergency room nurse whom she photographed, can take more than an hour. At the end of a day’s work, she puts on new gloves and wipes down her equipment — cameras, lenses, lens caps, cables — with a 70-percent isopropyl alcohol solution. She also sprays the floor, light switches and faucets with a bleach solution. Before she showers, she stuffs her clothes into a garbage bag to wash later.
“Sometimes all this feels crazy, like I’m turning into a hypochondriac,” Ms. Ochs said in an email. “But I’m trying to work from the side of being overly cautious.”
Compounding the challenge is the fact that staff jobs for photographers are hard to come by, and many work freelance. The Juntos Photo Coop, made up of four photojournalists in Arizona, published an open letter arguing that the coronavirus crisis had exposed inequitable working conditions for freelance photographers. The group demanded that media organizations provide photographers with protective gear, mental health check-ins and emergency health insurance.
“We’re finding out that the most vulnerable people in our industry are the ones without health insurance, who can’t pay rent, who can’t afford to quarantine,” said Caitlin O’Hara, a Coop member. “We’re going to lose all these diverse voices in our industry if only the people who can afford to quarantine can keep working.”
Despite the hazards, many photojournalists are driven by a need to record what the world looks like at a dramatic time.
“This kind of story is why we all became journalists, no?” Mr. He said. “The pandemic is historic and, especially because of the social distancing, with everyone indoors, there’s a real need for trained storytellers to inform readers about what’s really going on out there.”
He added, “I’d do the work for free if I had to.”