This special issue of Italian news magazine Internazionale is a photographic record of the pandemic, designed and art directed in the UK by Mark Porter. It is a catalogue of the story so far, compiled be a remote team working from their respective homes from an international array of photographers.
As I flicked through the new issue trying to get a sense of it, a double page photograph stopped me almost immediately (above). Against a purple sky, the full enormity of a cruise ship is captured, the rows and rows of lights only occasionally obstructed by the silhouettes of people standing on their small balconies. In the foreground, a metal fence, keeping a huddle of raincoat-clad reporters well back from the pier.
The photo is of Diamond Princess, the cruise ship quarantined in the port of Yokohama from the 4th of February to the 1st of March. The docked ship was one of the first significant developments of the COVID-19 crisis – the whole world was watching.
In the introduction to this issue, editor Daniele Cassandro references Susan Sontag and ‘other people’s pain’ when he describes reading about Wuhan’s lockdown in January (workers social-distancing, above). Italy looked on in disbelief. It would not happen ‘here’, it was ‘none of their business’. These words are horribly familiar – Britain did the same.
And so it’s no surprise that the majority of the photos in this issue emulate stills from big-budget disaster movies; The Day After Tomorrow or Contagion feel like more pertinent points of reference than the black and white shots of the most recent pandemic, the 1918 Spanish flu. The perceived theatricality of these new images serves as a reminder that a health crisis of this scale has only ever existed in the imaginations of those alive today.
The issue represents the domestic side of the crisis too; from those working at home via video-call to those who have been spending weeks furloughed in total isolation. It is a different kind of surreality, a quotidian, less expected, under-prepared for kind. The black and white photographs in this section are of children, of facetiming relatives and sunlight on walls. These smaller, more intimate images provide a contrast between home quarantine and the desolate public spaces, reminiscent of the pixelated videos that have been circulating online for weeks now – the anonymous clapping neighbourhoods and balcony choruses.
The other human, ‘private drama’ of the crisis has been captured in the cover story. ‘Each of the photographs in this special are part of a story that touches us all’ writes Cassandro, and it’s true. The exhausted faces of doctors, nurses and other key workers, their noses and cheekbones red with chafe-marks from their masks, are some of the most moving shots in this issue.
What this issue of Internazionale so deftly manages to offer is hindsight. It’s not too soon either; the weeks have been warped by rolling news and the loss of social and cultural variety. Time has instead been marked by the changing of the leaves or the more monumental developments in the pandemic. And here they all are in the pages of the magazine, dated: The deserted Kaaba on the 6th of March; a lone grave-digger amidst hundreds of holes in Brasil on the 2nd of April (above); Pope Francis giving a blessing urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world) in a deserted San Pietro square, 27th of March.
Screengrabs of world leaders at the virtual G20 conference, 26 March
Many of these images have appeared on my tiny phone screen first as breaking news, then as memes. Looking at Internazionale’s array of full-bleed professional photographs feels like going to a gallery. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that many of these images will end up in an exhibition one day. Images of the pandemic have been cheapened by social media and while a new aesthetic has emerged, what camera-phones and their apps lack is the ability to capture scale.
And though the time-stamped tweets and articles have engraved a digital timeline of the crisis, physical ephemera is ironically easier to navigate and preserve. This printed collection benefits from great photo editing and strong art direction, adding context and value with every decision. Internazionale’s pandemic image diary is an unmissable collection of the most poignant moments the world has witnessed in the past few months. This is more than a magazine, it’s an artefact.