Photo of COVID-19 victim in Indonesia sparks fascination—and denial

Coronavirus victim wrapped in plastic shows what many didn’t want the populace to see.

Friday, July 24, 2020,
By David Beard
The body of a suspected covid-19 victim lies in an indonesian hospital. After the patient died, ...
The body of a suspected covid-19 victim lies in an indonesian hospital. After the patient died, nurses wrapped the body in layers of plastic and applied disinfectant to prevent the spread of the virus.
Photograph by JOSHUA IRWANDI

Photojournalist Joshua Irwandi shadowed hospital workers in Indonesia, taking a striking image of a plastic-wrapped body of a COVID-19 victim while making sure not to reveal distinguishing characteristics, or even gender.

The image, taken for Nat Geo as part of a National Geographic Society grant, struck a chord in the nation of 270 million people. Indonesia had been slow to fight the global pandemic, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo touting an unproven herbal remedy in March. Some of the reactions to Irwandi’s image, which humanised the suffering from the virus, have been hostile.

Irwandi’s photograph has been displayed on television news and shared by the spokesperson for the nation’s coronavirus response team. The image was widely screen-grabbed and republished without Irwandi’s consent by Indonesian media. More than 325,000 people have “liked” the image on his Instagram page, which he posted after the Nat Geo story published on July 14.

“It’s clear that the power of this image has galvanised discussion about coronavirus,” Irwandi said from his home in Indonesia. “We have to recognise the sacrifice, and the risk, that the doctors and nurses are making.”

(Related: Photographing the fight for life – and the grief of death – in COVID-19 Britain.

There’s no question the photograph broke through, agreed Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the International Centre of Photography: “Here we have a mummified person. It makes you look at it, feel terror.”

At the same time, there is distance, Ritchin said. “To me, the image was of someone being thrown out, discarded, wrapped in cellophane, sprayed with disinfectant, mummified, dehumanised, othered ... It makes sense in a way. People have othered people with the virus because they don’t want to be anywhere near the virus.”

After Irwandi posted the photograph, a popular singer with a massive following accused the photographer of fabricating the news, said COVID-19 wasn’t so dangerous, and opined that a photojournalist shouldn’t be allowed to take a photograph in a hospital if the family could not see the victim. The singer’s followers erroneously charged Irwandi with setting up the photo with a mannequin, and called him “a slave” of the World Health Organisation. The 28-year-old photographer has received threats, and said he believes that the government has been trying to hunt down the hospital, unidentified in the image, where the body was photographed.

”Details of my private life have been published without my permission,“ Irwandi said. ”We’ve gone really astray from the photojournalistic intent of my photograph.“

However, he has gotten support from the nation’s association of photojournalists. They countered that the image met journalistic standards—and demanded the singer apologise, which he subsequently did.

Irwandi says some government officials have said the nation should take COVID-19 more seriously. As of Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker had reported 4,320 COVID-19 deaths and 89,869 cases from Indonesia, although the count is believed to be vastly underreported. Many people aren’t practicing social distancing, and hordes have not been wearing masks. Large-scale social restrictions began fading last month.

His hope is that the image encourages Indonesians to take precautions—and save lives. He cited a challenge to photojournalists given in May by Harvard professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis: to move beyond statistics and show how COVID-19 is affecting people. Other photographers, such as Lynsey Addario, have been motivated to do the same thing. (Addario also has been supported by a National Geographic Society fund for COVID-19 reporting.)

So, what are Irwandi’s next steps?

He paused a moment.

“I think I’m going to stay low for a time,” he said.

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