Covid-19 is pressuring photojournalists to reconsider how they document their subjects without infecting them.

Photographs of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa, at Doornkop Military Base in Johannesburg, launch photojournalist Yeshiel Panchia’s ongoing series on the covid-19 lockdown.

Another photograph in the series is of a woman wearing a mask, standing in front of her home at the Bekezela informal settlement in Johannesburg. There is also a photograph of an SANDF soldier policing an empty street in Alexandra Township. The photographs are unsettling.

Panchia (28) recalls feeling overwhelmed with uncertainty the night he took the photographs at Doornkop, trying to navigate an unfamiliar story.

Yeshiel Panchia is a freelance photojournalist that is reporting on the lockdown. Photo: Provided.

A lingering worried tone in his voice, Panchia emphasises that the biggest challenge of reporting during a pandemic has nothing to do with photographs, but rather cross-contamination.

“We (journalists) are people who are allowed to move around, accessing communities that are vulnerable. The worst thing that could happen right now is that one of us is going to get sick and go to a community that really cannot deal with [covid-19].”

He says news organisations such as Reuters have released guidelines for journalists on how to protect themselves and others from covid-19. Panchia strictly follows those guidelines.

Our late evening interview occurs over Skype and Panchia says his decision to chase the beat was stirred by the image shot by James Oatway for the Sunday Times of a Mozambican migrant, Emmanuel Sithole, who was murdered in Alexandra in 2015.

Panchia worked for The Citizen in 2016 and 2017, but before that worked as a digital marketing manager at Samsung Electronics and Warner Music. He shifted into freelance photojournalism, because he saw the increasing presence of international news agencies as providing a better chance of selling photographs.

Photojournalists do not often emerge unscathed from their exposure. Panchia’s partner, Mia Jansen Van Rensburg (23), is a source of support. “He is the most resilient person I have ever met.”

In light of covid-19, she worries about their safety. “[Covid-19] is an invisible thing, outside our control,” she says.

Panchia’s advice to budding photojournalists is that the profession is risky due to unstable income, but confidence in your work pays off.

“Nobody got into this field because of [income] sustainability. Everyone who is brilliant at it, everyone who has taken a picture that has changed something in the world, has done it because they have wanted to,” Panchia says.

FEATURED IMAGE: SANDF soldiers stand at attention at the Doornkop Military Base in Johannesburg, on the eve of the lockdown. This photograph is part of photojournalist Yeshiel Panchia’s series on the 21-day lockdown in South Africa. Photo: Provided.