Alumni Q&A: Photojournalist Gabriela Bhaskar, '17 M.S. | Columbia Journalism School

Alumni Q&A: Photojournalist Gabriela Bhaskar, '17 M.S.

Her photos have appeared in The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Gabriela Bhaskar, '17 M.S., is a  freelance photojournalist based in New York City. A social media marketing strategist before J-School, she said she "fell in love with photography as a teenager and have always been passionate about social justice, so photojournalism was always the goal for me.'' She attended the J-School "to improve my reporting and storytelling skills that I hoped would elevate my photography.'' Here, she talks about the challenges of documenting a city at the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. 

Q. What is the biggest challenge for you as a photographer right now to report on the coronavirus story? Is access an issue?
A. As a photographer, I have thrived in intimate settings and with intimate stories. One of the things I appreciate about my job is that people, who don’t need to open themselves and their lives up, trust me enough to photograph some of the most private parts of their lives.

We photojournalists are limited in how we work because we need to socially distance, wear PPE and work faster than before. The time and tools we used to rely on to create meaningful portraits or images cannot be employed. It’s also scary for our sources to see us in the proper PPE.

People are understandably stressed about being outside the home and when they see someone in a mask with a long lens lurking on a corner, waiting for a moment, they are agitated and scared. I have had more encounters of aggression towards me for doing basic street photography on assignment since I started covering this on March 9 than I ever have had before.

Q. How do you stay safe?
A.  I am glad we have a better guidance on this now but in the beginning it was confusing. My family is Singaporean and having spent a lot of time there during SARS and living there through H1N1, I assumed the surgical and N95 masks were good ways to protect each other and ourselves but the CDC and our newsrooms were providing very different information. We finally understood the truth was that there was a shortage and that provided its own ethical quandaries about using valuable PPE that our healthcare workers needed. It took several weeks for the safety standards to change. In retrospect, this grey area was probably the most vulnerable time for us in the field. It was peak spread with the least amount of PPE and the city was still running at capacity.

At the moment, I have been restocked by my clients with KN95 masks. I had received safety training from Reuters before this and in the last several weeks have been offered targeted safety training from other news and journalism organizations to better understand the proper safety protocol for any situation we are walking into. I use gloves when I feel like I can’t avoid touching high traffic surfaces, obviously observing the correct way to don and doff them. I also have hand sanitizer that I’m constantly applying when I can’t wash my hands.

Finally, I have a lengthy disinfectant process when I get home. Shoes and clothing are removed at the door, put in a bag away from the rest of our laundry and laundered as often as possible. I jump straight into the shower. Then, I don gloves and make my way through disinfecting all my gear including the buttons, wheels and the viewfinder on my cameras and all my bags, cases and zippers. We had a hard time finding cleaning supplies, but luckily family and friends from across the country who live in less impacted areas have been helping ship products like Lysol Disinfectant Spray, which I use for my camera bag and jackets that can’t be laundered.

Q. How are freelance photographers taking care of each other?

A. Colleagues have organized Zoom calls to talk through some of the issues I mentioned. I think we all know this is difficult. I think we collectively have taken initiative to make sure people are coping and are feeling supported.

I feel lucky to have been introduced to the Dart Center at J-School and have been tuning into their webinars. It’s helpful to hear what other people are going through.

As freelancers, we were already quite isolated so I think in some ways the work isn’t that different. We rarely saw our editors to begin with, and if we weren’t covering massive press events, we didn’t see each other on assignment. That said, when I have run into colleagues, I have felt so much joy, and that funny little foot tap is currently functioning as a warm hug that we so desperately need.

Bhaskar gets the last word: You didn’t ask this question but I do feel like before the crisis there was a hierarchy of expertise in reporting. Photographers and videographers were assumed to be illustrators of a story, when in reality, we often have a lot of ideas of our own and know how to report. At the moment, we are the ones out in the field seeing what is happening. I have had more writers use what I am seeing, my sources and story ideas than ever before. I hope our industry acknowledges that there is value in collaboration with us when this is all over.