Finnish photojournalist says Finland "sanitised" Covid reality

International media has shown Covid suffering, but this has been largely absent in Finland, says a NYT photo editor.

A photograph entitled 'The Human Cost of Covid-19' taken by freelance documentary photographer Joshua Irwandi won second prize in the World Press Photo contest. Image: Joshua Irwandi. Kuvan lähde: World Press Photo

The striking image of the body of a coronavirus victim wrapped in yellow infectious-waste plastic and lying in an Indonesian hospital won second prize in this year's World Press Photo awards.

When the image—captured by Indonesian freelance photographer Joshua Irwandi in April 2020—was first published, it sparked widespread debate across social media in a country that was at the time struggling to cope with the first wave of the virus.

Many people accused Irwandi of contriving the image in order to spread fear, but by the end of 2020 Indonesia had officially recorded 22,000 Covid-related deaths.

The 2021 World Press Photo winner also captured a moment that showed the human effects of the virus. The image, entitled 'The First Embrace' and taken by Danish photographer Mads Nissen, shows 85-year-old Rosa Luzia Lunardi receiving her first human embrace in five months from nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza at the Viva Bem care home in São Paulo, Brazil.

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'The First Embrace' captured by Danish photographer Mads Nissen shows nurse Adriana Silva da Costa Souza hugging care home resident Rosa Luzia Lunardi (85). Image: Mads Nissen / Politiken / Panos Pictures. Kuva lähde: World Press Photo

"Coronavirus has been dominating the flow of news images for a year and a half," Finnish photo editor Mikko Takkunen told Yle. "However, the pandemic has been displayed very differently in different parts of the world."

Takkunen works on the New York Times' foreign affairs news desk, ordering and selecting photos for NYT articles. He has been based in Hong Kong for a number of years and is responsible for selecting news images for the whole of Asia.

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New York Times photo editor Mikko Takkunen. Image: Heikki Haapalainen / Yle

He has therefore very closely followed the pandemic, and how it has been told through news imagery, since the very first cases were reported in Wuhan, China.

Covid images "sanitised" in Finland

Takkunen said he has noticed that there have been far fewer images appearing in the Finnish media of Covid-related deaths or very ill people compared to other parts of the world.

"The photos [from Finland] have been more sanitised. The pictures coming out of Finland to the rest of the world have been of concrete boulders during the Uusimaa lockdown or neat lines of people awaiting vaccination," Takkunen said.

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People waiting to be vaccinated in Helsinki, April 2021. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle
Concrete boulders being placed on the motorway as Uusimaa entered was shut off from the rest of the country in spring 2020. Image: Ilkka Klemola / Yle

Although Finland has escaped many of the worst effects of the pandemic that have devastated other countries, Takkunen said he believes that cultural differences are also a factor in the images that photographers in Finland choose to capture.

Photographers and journalists have, for example, not been present in the intensive care units of hospitals, and the threshold for media presence at a funeral in Finland is very high.

As an example of how this differs to other countries, Takkunen cites the example of the impact the virus had on the Italian city of Bergamo in the spring of 2020, a story extensively covered by the New York Times (siirryt toiseen palveluun) as well as other news outlets.

Photographers captured images of sick people lying on beds in crowded hospital corridors, of exhausted healthcare workers, and of the scenes at city cemeteries, as the army was drafted in to help transport the dead.

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The Italian army was drafted into the city of Bergamo to help transport the dead to cemetries.

Photographers in the United Kingdom also gained access to hospital wards to document the extent of human suffering during the height of the pandemic. These images, including one which made the front page of the New York Times, show the toll the virus has taken on patients.

These types of images have not been seen coming out of Finland at all throughout the entire pandemic, Takkunen pointed out.

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A photograph of a patient receiving treatment at a hospital in London on the front page of the New York Times in March 2021. Image: Andrew Testa / New York Times

"If a photo has been taken for us, we always ensure that we have permission from the person himself or herself or his or her relative. This is not compromised," Takkunen said, adding that even the harshest images are justified.

"They bring the reality of the pandemic closer. Without them, many would be completely unfamiliar with what Covid is at its worst," he said.

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A New York Times front-page photograph of the effects of the pandemic in Brazil, August 2020. Image: Tyler Hicks / New York Times

As examples, Takkunen recalled seeing images from India and Brazil as the virus took an enormous toll on human life in both countries.

In India, Danish Siddiqui, a photographer for the news agency Reuters, captured the chaos (siirryt toiseen palveluun) in hospitals, graveyards and crematoriums as coronavirus "tore through Indian cities, towns and villages" while images of additional cemeteries being built in Brazil to bury the dead has stayed with Takkunen.

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Images from crematoriums in India spread worldwide. Image: Idrees Mohammed / EPA

In the United States, images of the pandemic fall into two broad categories, as do most people's attitudes towards the virus.

Vaccine critique and even denial of the entire pandemic is more common in the US, and appears more generally within the media. Fox News’ images of the pandemic look very different than, say, the New York Times, Takkunen added.