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Documenting a Pandemic: A War Photographer’s Experience in a Coronavirus Hot Spot

Documenting a Pandemic: A War Photographer’s Experience in a Coronavirus Hot Spot


Christopher Morris captured powerful images of an unlikely coronavirus hot spot for Time magazine

Part one in a three-part series on the unique and vital role of photographers documenting the everyday and the history-making moments.

Christopher Morris had photographed death before. In fact, many times before. Much of his career was spent covering conflicts around the world. He captured front-line photos of the Persian Gulf War, the war in former Yugoslavia, the famine and war in Somalia, and the U.S. invasion of Panama.

So when his editor at Time magazine needed a photographer to capture how the coronavirus ravaged a small town in Georgia, Morris got the call.

“On the phone, he said, ‘you have a lot of experience with military, and training with chemical weapons that kill you within days of exposure,’” Morris recalled in an interview with Artistic Fuel. “He knew I would know how to handle it.”

After phone calls like that, Morris typically boards a plane overseas. But this assignment felt too close to home, a four-and-a-half hour drive from his house in Tampa to Albany, Georgia.

It seemed like an unlikely spot for a coronavirus outbreak. The 75,000-person town sits three hours south of Atlanta, 40 miles from the nearest interstate. But, with 1,629 cases in Albany’s Dougherty County and 128 coronavirus-related deaths, it’s one of the worst hit cities per capita.

When Morris pulled into town last month, the death toll had surpassed 50. His job was to capture 48 hours in the life of Dougherty County coroner, Michael Fowler.

Morris didn’t know what this disease known as COVID-19 was capable of. It seemed no one did, so he erred on the side of caution. He needed to come home healthy. His mother’s parents, who are in their 70s, were staying with them after they couldn’t get back to their home in Europe.

“I knew the seriousness of it. It was an unseen enemy…and with this, I realized I need to treat it like it’s everywhere. I had to treat it like the black death or anthrax — to the extreme that if you get this you are going to die,” he said. “I couldn’t bring it home.”

Part of the job: conquering fear

Time set him up with a protective suit, masks and gloves. And Morris turned his rental car into a makeshift clean room. He scrubbed every nook and cranny of the car with alcohol and gave the same treatment to everything that he set in the car. Camera gear, shoes, overnight bag. To avoid any risks that came with produce or freshly prepared food, he stuck to a diet of packaged junk food.

“This town was hit so hard. It was like an explosion,” he said. “With that mindset, I knew I had to keep my entire environment clean. It was really exhausting.”

Journalists who have covered wars and disasters have to balance taking extreme caution to keep themselves safe, while still doing their journalistic craft, Morris explained.

“And still photographers have to do it within three to four meters of their subjects. We can’t capture the moment from 60 meters away,” he said. “You’re basically capturing a man who’s trying to kill another man. You have to be able to do that and survive.”

Coroner Michael Fowler visits a cemetery near his office in Albany, Georgia. [Photo by Christopher Morris]

In his early years as a war correspondent, Morris experienced such fear that he couldn’t see the controls on his camera. It’s an out-of-body experience that is common among journalists new to covering war and disasters.

He says he learned to control that fear during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. “I knew to do this job well as a journalist I had to learn to conquer that fear and use those feelings to my advantage.”

Now, in a small Southern town, he was facing a similar fear but one that could impact more than just him.

“Here I am with the coroner. What’s to say he doesn’t have it. It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll get it, but I don’t want to bring it back to my family.”

‘The look of sheer horror’

On his first day in Albany, Morris and a videographer interviewed Coroner Michael Fowler about his experience. Fowler saw the first coronavirus-related death in Albany happened on March 15, and they haven’t stopped since. He told Morris that every one of the deaths can be linked back to two funerals. Whoever attended those funerals went back to their homes and infected people in their neighborhoods and churches.

Fowler showed Morris his office and the small morgue that wasn’t built to handle multiple deaths a day.

“You look for it to happen in a big city. But here? In a small city? How did it happen here?” Fowler says in the Time video Morris helped produce. “It was just a shock to this community.”

Coroner Michael Fowler responds to a call of a resident found dead and alone in his apartment. The smell is what alerted the other residents. The coroner was called in after confirmed Covid-19. During this call, another call came through of another coronavirus-related death up the road at an assisted living facility. [Photo by Christopher Morris]

The next morning, Morris sat in his car in front of the coroner’s office waiting to capture Fowler responding to a call. He didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, Fowler hurried to his vehicle, marked in big letters along the side and rear with the word, CORONER. With sirens blaring and lights flashing, the SUV drove across Albany. And Morris followed.

“When we’d blow through lights, I could see the look of sheer horror on the people’s faces who were stopped at the light, watching the coroner go by,” Morris said. “When he passes you, it’s not a police car, it’s death. It’s the coroner.”

He wishes he could have captured their faces, but he kept driving, following Fowler to the call.

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“Here I was in America on a sunny Sunday in Georgia, and I felt like I was chasing death. It was quite emotional, even now as I’m talking about it.”

Photography with a mission

For most of Morris’ career, a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or a conflict overseas would result in a two- to three-month assignment. Publications would send reporters, photographers and videographers to the front lines of a disaster for months at a time, to help them tell the stories of the lives lost and to give the rest of the world a face to the tragedy.

“It was proper journalism,” Morris said. “But those were better financial times for news organizations.”

If anything, Morris hopes this pandemic will help people realize the value of quality journalism. It’s something of value and worth paying for. And his images from an out-of-the-way town in Georgia are one example of the power of photojournalism in particular.

Coroner Michael Fowler meets with emergency personnel about another coronavirus-related death. [Photo by Christopher Morris]

“You need local journalists, even more so than even on the national level,” Morris said. “Without properly trained, credentialed journalists, it’s open to utter totalitarian manipulation of truth.”

He continued, “I’m passionate about it because I’ve seen it. Where politicians have spun nations into civil war because truth isn’t getting out. That’s been my whole career in documenting civil wars.”

As his freelance assignments have become fewer and farther between in the past 10 years, Morris has taken up fashion and celebrity photography. He even took a gig as the official photographer of the Princess of Monaco’s twins. “I had to reinvent myself,” he said.

But his passion still lies in documenting the hard-to-forget moments on the front lines of tragedy in hopes that they won’t be repeated.

“I’ve spent my life witnessing how society breaks down. Basically, when there is some kind of turmoil, I’m there to capture it. I’ve built my career on that.”

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