Photos show the world's essential workers serving on the front lines

Their work was often unappreciated before, but they’re keeping society running during a crisis.

By Rachel Hartigan
Published 23 Apr 2020, 20:25 BST
Nairobi, Kenya

Night time is the province of essential workers: the fire brigade, ambulance drivers, security guards, and fumigation teams, like this one.

Photograph by Nichole Sobecki

The workers who now find themselves on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic have always been essential but we're just now noticing them. A worldwide health crisis forced us to realise that we depended on them—and that they're risking their lives. With the streets empty and much nonessential work stopped, we are finally seeing the faces of the people we need to survive.

Photographers also perform essential work, by showing us people we might not otherwise see—the fumigators working at night in Nairobi and the garbage collectors driving dark streets in Normandy. In South Africa, a photographer notices workers returning electricity to a poor neighbourhood, while in Brazil, another finds a shopkeeper delivering groceries to his customers. In London, a doctor reads up on the coronavirus after a long shift, while just outside Paris, workers in a coffin factory double their production. 

How has our view of what constitutes vital work changed? National Geographic and Magnum Photos photographers bring you a global look at how coronavirus is affecting the worlds they see inside—and just outside—their windows.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has resulted in most Magnum photographers being restricted in their movements. As part of a broader photographer-led response, a new series “Diary of a Pandemic” will present selections of new work, while "Quarantine Conversations," will present Magnum photographers in frank and unedited dialogues about work, current affairs, and everything in-between. Follow Magnum Photos on Instagram.

New York, USA: A grocery store worker in Brooklyn lays in a supply of paper towels during the early days of the pandemic.

Photograph by Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos

Athens, Greece: A man sells fruit on a deserted street. He told photographer Enri Canaj that he had to earn a living: "There's nothing else I can do."

Photograph by Enri Canaj, Magnum Photos

New York, USA: Mary Bolela, a nurse from Mississippi, volunteered to care for COVID-19 patients in New York. Assigned to the temporary hospital at Coler Campus on Roosevelt Island, she bought sodas for her colleagues while on break.

Photograph by Ismail Ferdous

Nesoddtangeen, Norway: "My wife Anna is a doctor so she goes to work every day," says Jonas Bendiksen. "I photographed her as she was having her morning coffee and a well-deserved day of rest."

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, Magnum Photos

Johannesburg, South Africa: Mojaleda works as a security officer in a shopping mall some six miles from his home. "It worries me to use public transportation at the moment," he says. "Because of the current restrictions, it has been more difficult to get there."

Photograph by Miora Rajaonary

Las Vegas, Nevada: "This is Steve, the postal worker who delivers mail to my parents' new home in Las Vegas," says photographer Daniella Zalcman. "Thankfully he has a route that allows him to remain in his truck and not interact with anyone while he's out working every day."

Photograph by Daniella Zalcman

Topanga, California: Raul Hernandez (left) and his father Ignacio Hernandez work on a house construction project. "Our neighbours worked at a restaurant and at a gym," says Ignacio. "They both lost their jobs. I feel really lucky we still have work."

Photograph by Ivan Kashinsky

London, England: Nono takes a phone order at her father's Japanese cafe, where all the other workers have been furloughed. She spends most of the day doing schoolwork but sometimes her dad lets her help him.

Photograph by Olivia Arthur, Magnum Photos

Itacaré, Brazil: The only Catholic church in town has been closed for more than three weeks but Father Ednaldo Cardoso has been offering spiritual advice via WhatsApp.

Photograph by Cristina de Middel, Magnum Photos

Delhi-NCR, India: "The maintenance and security staff at our housing society have been working 24/7 to keep all of us safe and comfortable," says photographer Smita Sharma. "They fumigated the whole apartment complex while one of my neighbours watched the smoke from her balcony."

Photograph by Smita Sharma

Tepic, Mexico: Members of the band Revelacion Norteña play outside Tepic's cathedral. They used to perform at parties but since everything stopped they've been trying to earn money by playing on the streets.

Photograph by César Rodriguez

Florence, Italy: Leonardo Palloni is a butcher in Florence. With long lines at supermarkets, people are turning to small stores like his for their grocery shopping.

Photograph by Gabriele Galimberti

Thokoza, South Africa: "We have been having a lot of power cuts," says photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa, "which has made it difficult for most people to social distance without electricity." These municipal workers are repairing a faulty cable.

Photograph by Lindokuhle Sobekwa, Magnum Photos

Bristol, England: Nurses join the clapping for National Health Service workers outside Bristol Royal Infirmary, a large teaching hospital.

Photograph by Martin Parr, Magnum Photos

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Staff at this local supermarket in a Kuala Lumpur mall wear masks, face shields, and gloves for protection. Public hand sanitisers are strategically placed at checkouts while grocery cart handles are cleaned twice after each use.

Photograph by Ian Teh

Chevilly-Larue, France: Since mid-March, workers at a casket manufacturer near Paris have doubled their daily production of coffins.

Photograph by Patrick Zachmann, Magnum Photos

Barcelona, Spain: During the lockdown, veterinarians only examine animals needing urgent treatment, including photographer Paolo Verzone's 15-year-old cat Panterino.

Photograph by Paolo Verzone, Vu

New York, USA: A driver stops his bus outside East Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. New York City's public transit workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus: At least 83 have died.

Photograph by Natalie Keyssar

Madrid, Spain: Photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero would like to thank all the pharmacists. "With their dedication and courage, they make it possible for us to buy masks, alcohol, disinfectants, and gloves."

Photograph by Cristina García Rodero, Magnum Photos

São Paulo, Brazil: Food delivery personnel wait for their packages at a small market in the Copan building, the largest residential building in Latin America.

Photograph by João Pina

Paris, France: Psychiatrist Marc Windisch reads poems near the Eiffel Tower to comfort people.

Photograph by Bruno Barbey, Magnum Photos

Topanga, California: Mike Bae, the owner of the General Store in Topanga Canyon, has provided his eight employees with masks, sanitiser, and gloves. He has experienced a surge in business since the pandemic began.

Photograph by Karla Gachet

Johannesburg, South Africa: Photojournalist Xanderleigh Dookey reports from an abandoned building that has become a home for people with nowhere else to go. "We are the eyes and ears of the people, even more so when our world is on lockdown," says photographer Gulshan Khan, who captured Dookey at work.

Photograph by Gulshan Khan

Moscow, Russia: At a bakery, the face of a woman working behind the counter is reflected in the display case below.

Photograph by G. Pinkhassov, Magnum Photos

Regina, Canada: Photographer Sara Hylton was quarantined for two weeks after returning to Canada from India. During that time, her mother Lyn visited her everyday, bringing treats or the newspaper. "Even though we have yet to hug or touch, I am grateful to see my beautiful, healthy mother in the flesh," says Hylton. "My essential worker."

Photograph by Sara Hylton

Val-d'Oise, France: Essential yet disposable, these gloves were scattered across a parking lot near Paris.

Photograph by Antoine d' Agata, Magnum Photos

Normandy, France: Garbage collectors work while the streets are empty and the windows are shuttered.

Photograph by Jean Gaumy, Magnum Photos

Coca Coast, Brazil: André runs a small convenience store with his wife. He's delivering orders to their customers so people won't crowd the tiny shop.

Photograph by Luisa Dörr

London, England: Caroline Smith, an emergency doctor, studies coronavirus statistics at home.

Photograph by Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Krakow, Poland: A small production and design company called Yeti shifted their work to produce protective gear for local hospitals.

Photograph by Rafał Milach, Magnum Photos

Bergamo, Italy: An employee at the nearby cemetery is dressed for his somber job—dark suit, gloves, and a mask—although funerals have been banned in Italy.

Photograph by Alex Majoli, Magnum Photos

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